Business minister needs to back business

Earlier this week, in advance of Friday’s announcement on Moody’s credit assessment of SA, trade & industry minister Rob Davies addressed the Cape Town Press Club. His subject? “How government intends to place the economy on the road to recovery.”

Davies has been at the helm of the department of trade & industry for a decade. His long term in office presumably represents a post-Polokwane payback to the SA Communist Party (SACP), whose central committee Davies has long graced.

He has reached the age of 70 and will not be returning to parliament after the May elections. His departure feels like the end of an era. Which era remains open to question: some say the Jacob Zuma period; others the 1960s; still others, more unfairly, the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Thabo Mbeki was removed from the presidency by a leftist coalition just as pro-market economic theology was called into question by the global financial crisis. This conjuncture resulted in an all-too-hasty resurgence of the developmental state and “strategic” state-owned enterprises.

A brand new department for economic development meanwhile formulated a “new growth path” totally at odds with the Treasury orthodoxy.

For his part, Davies took the much bigger department down a resolutely interventionist road, championing re-industrialisation, tightening black economic empowerment (BEE) policy, and latterly promoting the incubation of black entrepreneurs.

It is not easy to evaluate these programmes’ successes and limitations. It is telling, however, that Davies’ own list of departmental achievements includes “slowing down the rate of de-industrialisation”. A fifth of economic activity was in the manufacturing sector when the ANC came to power; today it accounts for little more than a tenth.

Davies claims he was not “picking winners” but “taking actions that allow winners to emerge”. But the motor industry programme has become a corporate subsidy, retained because of recurrent panic about the consequences of phasing it out. Davies cites the collapse of the Australian car industry.

BEE, as ever, remains both absolutely essential and totally unrealisable. Equity in existing businesses has been partially redistributed, but the policy has not helped smaller businesses and light manufacturing — white or black — emerge or grow.

Davies’ ANC faction, the SACP, has been critical of the emphasis BEE policy has placed on distributing equity to politically connected rentiers. As minister, however, Davies has been unwilling to countenance any rethink.

His record with regard to trade has also been mixed. He has admirably looked to the longer term when it comes to regional institutions and to China. But China and our Southern African neighbours are not serious investors in SA. Davies has repeatedly rebuffed the people who actually do invest here, including the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

Like other ANC leaders, he has made policy for the partners he wishes SA had, rather than for the ones we actually have. Worse still, Davies has failed to represent the urgent needs of business inside the policy process. A major priority should have been reversing — or at least effectively mitigating — SA’s disastrous skilled migration policies.

Davies refuses to estimate the damage that has been done to business by electricity price hikes and rolling blackouts. He talks of a “dampening effect” on the economy, and concedes that those worst hit are small enterprises, emerging black industrialists and township businesses.

“Nobody had the intention of wrecking Eskom,” he suggests, failing to acknowledge the responsibility of ANC fundraisers (starting with Chancellor House), politicians and their families who have milked the Eskom coal supply chain, and party-sanctioned deployees to the boards of SOEs.

Davies also seems to have forgotten that as a loyal member of the SACP he backed the disastrous frustration of the 1998 energy white paper’s goals. He is still reticent about investment by independent power producers and the creation of a wholesale electricity market.

It is not yet clear how economic policy-making will change under President Cyril Ramaphosa. We can only hope that the department of trade and industry, or whatever replaces it, will be led by someone as clever and hardworking as Davies. But the new minister also needs to be in business’s corner.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

ANC dominance (from 2016)

THE idea of one-party dominance has shaped a good deal of political analysis since 1994. The overwhelming political power of the ANC has been viewed both positively and negatively.

Governing party sympathisers have portrayed ANC control as the only sure way to stabilise a divided society, to widen economic opportunities and to entrench democratic politics. Inequality and racial division, from this view, have been major threats to social stability. The ANC has managed such potential conflicts internally, balancing state and party appointments, cajoling different races to work together, and clamping down on potentially anti-democratic leaders. Robust multi-party competition, in contrast, would have destabilised a political system that lacked sound, legitimate and trusted institutions.

The negative view of ANC dominance has been argued equally vehemently. Elections without the countervailing power of a credible opposition, this argument runs, cannot check authoritarian tendencies. Party dominance encourages an arrogant governing party to view itself as the state; it allows patronage politics to grow unchecked; and it facilitates the abuse of the incumbency advantages, money and media control in order to secure re-election.

Both these sets of insights are illuminating (although many commentators have embraced only one or the other). One positive interpretation of the local government elections is that the country is escaping the dilemmas that dominance potentially creates. Over the past 20 years, the ANC has indeed entrenched the legitimacy of democratic institutions – for example, the courts and the electoral commission – by making them more racially representative and by aligning them to a constitutional order. South Africans have meanwhile become accustomed to free and fair elections and will not lightly consent to their manipulation.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties that once evidently lacked the ability to govern a complex society have gradually acquired such capabilities. The DA, in particular, has learnt how to govern in big cities and provinces, how to build coalitions, and how to recognise, and partially manage, the legacies of racial oppression.

This rosy view suggests that democracy may not merely survive, but also thrive, in the years ahead. Elections will become sites of political uncertainty, in which parties will need to respond to electors’ values and demands in order to win. The ANC may still govern, but it will need to remake itself in order to do so. Opposition parties, for their part, will have to remain open to coalition and compromise, and to reach out beyond their core constituencies.

Perhaps this is too rosy a view. The EFF may rejoin the ANC in 2019, taking opposition politics back to square one. The ANC leadership might take an authoritarian turn, trying to rig elections and curtail political competition. The legacies of apartheid, meanwhile, mean that inequality and injustice will continue to provide opportunities for racial mobilisation for decades to come.

The ANC, however, is a vast, sprawling and ideologically diverse movement that is very unlikely to fall under the effective control of an authoritarian leadership. The securocrats with whom President Jacob Zuma has surrounded himself, and even the celebrated ‘premier league’, lack the capabilities required to cement anti-democratic one-party rule.

A more real danger is that the game of democratic politics will distract political leaders’ attention from the constraints that the economy places on any government’s actions. The ‘dominant’ ANC’s most important achievement since 1994 has been its steadfast maintenance of prudent fiscal and monetary policy, despite all of the pressures and temptations to abandon it. For this accomplishment, it has been ridiculed and lambasted for two decades by self-indulgent commentators, trade unionists, civil society activists and scholars. The key hazard of a more competitive era of democratic politics is that symbolic and populist economic policies will become inescapable for any party that wishes to win power.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Malema’s dominance

Julius Malema’s organ, the EFF, has enjoyed some real successes. It exceeded 6% on its first electoral outing, placed land reform and youth unemployment on the political agenda, and rejuvenated the National Assembly. Putting ideology aside, it entered into qualified partnerships with the DA after the local government elections.

The EFF also has well-known weaknesses. The party’s ethnic and regional concentration continues to be a major limitation, especially given President Cyril Ramaphosa’s large political footprint in Gauteng and Limpopo.

In KwaZulu-Natal, where the EFF’s juvenile militarism seems laughable, it secured less than 2% in 2014. The party has evidently overcome its shortage of resources, but it has had to compromise with alleged gangsters and bank looters to do so.

The central problem for the EFF, however, lies in its leadership. It is totally dependent on Malema to secure its current base. But the “commander-in-chief” sets a cap on what the party can achieve in future.

Whatever the strengths of Floyd Shivambu — and they are not obvious — he could never replace or challenge his leader. At the Farlam commission of inquiry, Ramaphosa effortlessly made the party’s number three, Dali Mpofu, look like a rambling imbecile.

The only politician of real talent in the party’s central command is spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. While Shivambu’s instinct is to pin journalists physically to the wall, Ndlozi has some credulous reporters eating out of his hand. Little wonder he was apparently massaged down the party’s candidate list to seventh position.

Malema’s uncontested dominance contrasts with the contested leaderships of the ANC and the DA. As has been noted of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is of a similar age and policy orientation to Malema, a Great Leader poses real challenges to any party.

It makes some political sense for the EFF to attack members of racial minorities who are not going to vote for the EFF in any event. Malema’s only partly reassuring 2016 comment that “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now” may verge on the promotion of genocide, but it nonetheless motivates some of the EFF’s base.

Racist attacks on Indians in government can also be electorally rational. If one has bigoted supporters, pandering to their bigotry can increase the intensity of their devotion to the Great Leader and his party organ. After all, DA and ANC leaders are for the same reason pandering before the elections to anti-foreigner sentiment that they know could cause loss of lives.

What is curious about Malema is his decision to escalate attacks on the majority of SA citizens: women. Bigoted men constitute a large minority of electors, and a majority of current EFF voters. But a decision to alienate more than half of the electorate seems an unlikely strategy for growing a small party’s vote.

When television and radio presenter Karima Brown inadvertently sent a message to an EFF Whatsapp group last week urging her colleagues to investigate whether Malema had any women in his new group of “party elders”, Malema had no hesitation in reposting the message, together with some political innuendo and Brown’s cellphone number. He must have known that this posed a real danger to Brown’s well-being, or even her life.

It will be interesting to see if the EFF is successful in finding some elderly women with sufficiently little self-respect to accept a last-minute drafting on to the party’s elders’ council.

Party strategists are not concerned merely with the number of votes they can muster in the election, of course, but also with the politics of post-election coalition.

Malema and his sidekick Shivambu have already indicated that the EFF is not a real political party: it is an ANC faction, waiting solely for an opportunity to return to the mother body on favourable terms. By pre-committing the party to deal with the ANC only, Malema has thrown away the party’s potential leverage.

Any party willing to negotiate with Malema, meanwhile, will be tacitly accepting the legitimacy of his abhorrent attitudes towards women.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

ANC splits

The ANC has quite often been a lousy party of government. As a campaigner in national elections, in contrast, it has been consistently formidable.

Victories are often attributed to factors outside the ANC’s control, such as voters’ knuckle-headed loyalty, entrenched race-based voting, or the self-destructive tendencies of opposition parties.

These arguments are not terribly persuasive. Black citizens’ votes are now spread across a range of competing parties. White voters have become increasingly tribal, it is true, but their block vote for the DA scarcely bolsters ANC power. The two big opposition parties, moreover, know their way around an election campaign.

This means the ANC deserves some credit for its electoral successes. It has cleverly reaped rewards for citizens’ gains, including improved access to housing, household services, and social grants.

The ANC’s political research and advertising is quite professional, and its campaign team is selected on merit, regardless of factional allegiance. It targets specific constituencies — including religious actors, traditional leaders, and black businesses — cynically but precisely.

The least recognised electoral skill of the ANC leadership has been knowing when to split, how to split — and when not to split. One misleading argument widely advanced today is that the ANC is unusually divided in advance of the May 8 ballot. Such alleged division is contrasted with a prior tendency to “pull together” before elections.

In late 2008, however, the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC forced state president Thabo Mbeki to resign barely months before elections were due. The NEC acted in full awareness that Mbeki’s minions, such as Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George, would quickly be dispatched by the Supreme Being to form a breakaway party that became known as the Congress of the People (Cope).

Cope received about 7% of the vote in 2009 – without doubt mostly lost ballots for the ANC. But Cope’s creation allowed the internal politics of the ANC to stabilise, bringing consensus to the candidate list process, a halt to purges of Mbeki loyalists, and a coherent campaign.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections the ANC leadership precipitated the creation of another breakaway party, the EFF. The immediate driver of Julius Malema’s initial five-year suspension in late 2011 was his switch of allegiance to the anti-Zuma camp. His full expulsion in 2012 flowed from a wider recognition in the leadership that he was a divisive force. The EFF secured more than 6% in 2014, again primarily drawn from likely ANC supporters. As in 2009, however, the split enhanced the cohesion and effectiveness of the ANC.

Another split might have followed Jacob Zuma’s recall from the presidency in February 2018. A breakaway would have supported the new leadership’s otherwise somewhat implausible central campaign narrative: that the “good ANC” under Cyril Ramaphosa is rehabilitiating the movement, while the “bad ANC” responsible for “state capture” is being expunged. Three factors militated against a split. First, key Zuma apparatchiks inside the party machine declared immediately that they would stay put. The close initial balance of power between winners and losers meant quickly forced expulsions were hard.

Second, the reliable part of the support base of the ANC is significantly smaller than in previous elections. Even if a breakaway of Zuma loyalists secured just 6%-7% of the vote, as Cope and the EFF managed in their first elections, this would risk an end to ANC majority government. Finally, Cope was in part an ethnic breakaway, funded by Eastern Cape political families. For its part, the EFF has enjoyed strong representation only in the north and Gauteng. But neither party has come close to winning a “home province”.

A post-Zuma breakaway, in contrast, could easily have secured the balance of power in KwaZulu-Natal and so reversed the ANC’s historic gains in that province. The winners and losers alike have decided to remain together, at least for now, in the ANC’s big tent. They have been quite rational in doing so.



• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Lekota is wrong about Ramaphosa

It is hard to know exactly what Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota was thinking when he launched his premeditated attack on President Cyril Ramaphosa as a “sellout” in parliament this week.

The paths of Ramaphosa and Lekota crossed in the 1970s as a result of their shared participation in black consciousness politics. Lekota, however, was four years older, and already a part of the national leadership of the movement. Ramaphosa was a young student whose contribution to the struggle was at that stage mostly confined to the backwaters of the University of the North.

When security police rounded up more than 200 black consciousness activists in a countrywide sweep in September 1974, Ramaphosa was too junior to be targeted. Ultimately just 9 senior leaders, including Lekota, Gilbert Sedibe, and Saths Cooper, would be prosecuted in the “black consciousness” or “Saso” trial that dragged on from January 1975 to December 1976. Displaying bravery and resilience in the face of isolation and torture, the trialists became heroes in the eyes of their followers.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, was arrested at the police station in Turfloop under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, while he was leading a march to protest against just such detentions. He spent the next 11 months behind bars in solitary confinement. Detention was used to collect intelligence, to remove the leadership tier of anti-apartheid organisations, and to spread divisive rumours about collaboration.

They were not in this case successful instruments for getting activists to testify against their jailed leaders: in the Saso trial, almost nobody testified against the 12. For those who were detained without trial, meanwhile, the experience was dominated by fear, confusion and uncertainty. For the first months of solitary confinement Ramaphosa was allowed absolutely no reading material, not even a bible. He could hear the opening and closing of doors when others were released, and every day ended with shattered hopes of freedom. He retained his sanity by naming the insects that crawled across the floor of his cell.

Those who were detained but not charged, such as Ramaphosa, became the victims of security police strategies to sow confusion and mistrust. One tactic was to list detainees as potential state witnesses against the accused. Once listed, a prisoner could not be released on bail, and his detention was likely to drag on for further months.

Listing drove a wedge between a detainee’s family, allies and friends, and those of other detainees. The paranoia that was to mark the internal struggle of the 1980s — where everyone was a potential spy — was reaching its zenith. Locked away and disoriented, a detainee could also quickly come to believe that his friends doubted him.

Cooper was held in a neighbouring block to Ramaphosa at C-Max prison in Pretoria. The prisoners would pass messages from cell to cell, using code names and words to keep information safe from informers. In this way, Cooper became aware when Ramaphosa had arrived.

The black consciousness leadership was sceptical of claims spread by the security police about turncoats. “Most of us in the leadership were fully aware of who was and who wasn’t going to testify,” Cooper later recalled. “For us it was clear all along that Cyril was not going to testify … The purpose of listing someone as a potential state witness was to prevent any communication between that person and others.”

Political activists in the 1970s learnt very fast that the psychological mind-games of the secret police must not be allowed to destroy the humanity of their victims. They also learned that no detainee could hold out indefinitely against interrogation, especially when solitary confinement, or torture, were used. Prisoners would often sign affidavits that were not strictly true.

As activist-teacher Tom Manthata later recalled, “I never allowed myself unfounded suspicion that people were ‘sell-outs’ or whatnot. You are a sell-out only if you testify.” These were all hard-earned lessons, which Lekota in his advancing years seems to have completely forgotten.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. This piece draws on a new edition of his biography of Cyril Ramaphosa, which will be published by Jacana in April.

Zille’s tax revolt

The DA’s website currently hosts a campaign: Stop the Tax Attack on South Africans! The party states that “South Africans are being made to pay for the ANC’s corruption and mismanagement of the economy over the last decade … We refuse to continue paying … Enough is enough!”

The campaign focuses on indirect taxes, notably the fuel levy, though it also rails against increases in income tax, value-added tax (VAT), and sugar tax.

“When you fill up your tank, you will pay R265 (a third!) directly into the pockets of the ANC-govt, in tax! … Stop these exorbitant petrol price increases by taking action against corruption instead.” The ANC must “balance the budget by CUTTING corruption — not taking from the pockets of the people”, it says.

The DA deliberately conflates the state with the ANC — the “ANC-govt” — into whose “pockets” a third of the cost of fuel is transferred. All this comes on top of the party’s apparent support for the nonpayment of e-tolls.

Western Cape premier Helen Zille extended the DA’s antitax campaign over the past week. In a series of tweets and interviews she insists that she will organise a tax revolt if the ANC is not punished at the polls later this year and miscreants implicated at the Zondo commission are not prosecuted

Zille points to “a whole lot of tax revolts in progress right now”: nonpayment of Eskom by municipalities, nonrenewal of TV licences, refusal to pay e-tolls and government ministers’ alleged failure to pay income tax.

The DA’s official campaign forefronts indirect taxes. VAT accounts for a quarter of revenue, while customs duties, excise duties and the fuel levy together account for about 15%. Zille, in contrast, focuses on 4.9-million“ordinary diligent middle-class taxpayers”.

This is a little more than the number of people who voted for the DA in the last national elections, a little less than the population of the Western Cape, and exactly the number of whites in SA.

Zille’s rhetoric seems designed to fuel the perverse sense of victimhood that sometimes grips these three groups, some of whom, it is fair to say, are abnormal and not especially diligent. The number 4.9-million is also the proportion of SA’s 14-million registered taxpayers who are responsible for 97% of income tax receipts, but 60% of tax revenues do not come from personal income taxes at all.

Zille is right that there is no unequivocal moral obligation to obey the law. It has proved surprisingly difficult over the past 2,000 years to come up with a compelling answer to the question: “Why should I obey the state?”

If I participate in a democratic election I am perhaps consenting to obey the winners. More plausibly, we may be under a moral obligation to obey a state that protects human rights or provides a wide range of liberties to its citizens.

But Zille makes a fundamentally important point: we should not obey the law just because it is the law. We have a duty to act in accordance with our own moral judgments. However, those like Zille who promote defiance should undertake their campaigns in a morally serious spirit, and with a clear awareness of their potentially negative consequences.

It does not seem prudent, on the face of it, to play political games with a tax revolt in a country engaged in a difficult experiment to entrench the legitimacy of constitutional government. Personal tax compliance is already falling, and many of Zille’s cherished 4.9-millionwill cloak self-interest under the moral bluster of an anticorruption campaign.

A successful revolt would force government to increase indirect and company taxes, and this would have severe consequences for employment and for the wellbeing of the poor. Tax compliance, once significantly weakened, will prove hard or impossible to re-establish.

There is no need to resort to the ridiculous claim that Zille’s actions are tantamount to treason. But we should ask the DA, and Zille, to try instead to win the election — and perhaps also to grow up.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

For better or for worse, Ramaphosa is secure

SA citizens who are feeling sorry for their allegedly besieged president should cheer up. Cyril Ramaphosa’s situation is not as perilous as some observers have claimed.

It is difficult to see how former president Jacob Zuma’s cronies can launch a “fightback”. The ANC likes to imagine it has the power to “recall” a state president. But this alleged power is not found in the movement’s constitution. To be effective, a recall has to be backed by a credible threat to whip ANC MPs to vote against their own president in a no-confidence vote.

Even if a scandal erupted, Ramaphosa would first have to be kicked out of the ANC presidency, and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The next elective conference is in 2022, when Zuma and his cronies will be long gone. Today’s likely suspects — Zweli Mkhize, Paul Mashatile, and David Mabuza — each suffer from fatal limitations. Health issues aside, we will almost certainly not see a new ANC president until 2027.

There are various reasons the threat to Ramaphosa has been exaggerated. First, it suits Ramaphosa himself — for now. Even long-term opposition voters are rallying to  his side, determined to “save him for the nation” in the upcoming elections. Only baby-faced street fighter Pravin Gordhan has tear-inducing thespian genius that can compare to Ramaphosa’s.

Second, the ANC’s conception of “seniority” always makes it hard to put old presidents  such as Zuma out to grass. Nelson Mandela had to be shouted down in the national executive committee  to stop him attending. By 2002, Thabo Mbeki refused to pick up the phone when the old man called.

Little wonder Ramaphosa wants to create an elders’ council to house the old-timers. ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu naughtily thinks a distant foreign posting is an even better idea: “The thought of deploying Nxamalala is welcomed. It will help the country.”

Third, South Africans often assume that an election win boosts the authority of a president. In presidential systems, that is true: the power of the leader is indeed greatest at the start of his term.

But SA has a parliamentary government and citizens vote for a party. The power of a president or prime minister in such a system is not a post-election injection; it is accumulated over time.

It took Mbeki some time to centralise personal power in an enlarged presidency. He simply ignored the pleas of many special interests and imposed his own foreign policy — and public health — preferences.

Zuma’s presidency began feebly in 2009. The new ANC leadership said “collective decision-making” would be the new norm. Pretty soon, however, Zuma was on a roll, using party power to control the state and state power to control the party. By the time he was evicted in 2018 he had become a danger to democracy.

Ramaphosa’s apparent vulnerability is therefore the norm rather than the exception. His power will grow as he weeds out old-order apparatchiks and accumulates control of the levers of state power and patronage.

Zuma has taught us that key centres of power — in the criminal justice system, intelligence services, parastatals, revenue authorities and the Treasury — can be seized by a determined politician who is willing to use presidential prerogatives to the full. The ANC can do little or nothing about it.

Mandela offered a prescient warning when he handed over the reins to Mbeki: “One of the temptations of a leader who has been elected unopposed,” he observed, “is that he may use his powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalise them and in some cases get rid of them, and to surround himself with yes-men and women.”

Once entrenched in the Union Buildings, Mbeki and Zuma did indeed accumulate powers relentlessly and sideline their rivals ruthlessly. Patronage and political manipulation, once injected with the emotions of fear and sycophancy that a president can inspire, were sufficient to propel these two rather implausible and unlikeable leaders surprisingly close to perpetual power.

How much harder will it be to contain the loveable Cyril Ramaphosa?

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

NDZ as stalking horse

Front runners: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: MASI LOSI

Ignore people who tell you that leadership succession does not matter. They are wrong.

The ANC presidency matters most of all, because it leads almost inexorably to the state presidency. The ANC will probably remain the party of national government — on its own or in coalition with others — after 2019.

SA has an executive presidency, housed in a parliamentary system. The incumbent combines the authority of a head of state with control of a party machine. It is true that the power of a leader to do good is limited, but their capacity to create havoc is vast. This is why the notion of prudence is — or should be — so central for those who think seriously about politics.

President Jacob Zuma is a remarkable politician. His reign of destruction is proof enough that leadership really matters in human affairs. My suspicion is that Zuma is going to get precisely the successor he has planned for. And it is not Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

We have often been told that the succession struggle is a “two-horse race”. In one sense, this is correct. It is in the nature of a relatively fluid factional politics, dominated by the pursuit of resources, that two broad factions will fight for supremacy. There is no point joining a minority grouping.

One of the horses is definitely Cyril Ramaphosa. But it is starting to look like Dlamini-Zuma was never really in the race at all. She is a “stalking horse”: a horse-shaped screen behind which a hunter can stay concealed until it is time for him to strike.

When Zuma groomed her to compete for the highest ANC office, by sending her to the African Union Commission to acquire seniority, his acute political antennae would already have told him that she could not win in December. He promoted a no-hoper in full knowledge that her candidacy would not fly.

Why? Not because he believes she would not allow the prosecution of the father of her children. This is sentimental nonsense. Especially given that she cannot win.

A more likely explanation is that Zuma wanted to play the “third-term” card in the approach to the elective conference. “Tired though I am,” he probably planned to say, “I am obliged to step in and rescue the ANC from the unelectable candidate to whom I was once married, by staying on myself as ANC president.”

As events have unfolded, a third term for Zuma has become almost impossible to conceive, but Dlamini-Zuma remains eminently ditchable: this, after all, is why she is there at all.

Just as her un-electability in 2019 has begun to sink in across the movement, a third way, “unity” candidate has magically appeared: Dr Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize is a very capable politician indeed. If, as appears likely, he is nominated for the presidency by a majority of branches in Mpumalanga, he will be on the ballot in December, and so will not have to rely on nomination from the conference floor.

Mpumalanga chairperson, David Mabuza, is young enough to wait out two Mkhize terms. He will probably trade his support — and the large number of provincial delegates he will control — for a place as Mkhize’s deputy, in the expectation that he will ascend to the presidency 10 years hence.

For his part, Ace Magashule will do anything to secure a national position before he is kicked out by his own Free State troops.

Once Dlamini-Zuma withdraws her candidacy — a decision that is effectively Zuma’s to take — Mkhize will cannibalise her support base in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC’s leagues. He could then campaign on an “Anyone But Cyril” ticket. He would be a credible face for the ANC in the 2019 elections. And he could claim that he is not Zuma’s man.


• Butler is the author of Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana, 2013). He is preparing an unauthorised biography of Dr Zweli Mkhize

NDZ campaign options narrow

The ANC constitution leaves no doubt about the authority of the movement’s national conference: it must be convened “at least once every five years”, and it is “the supreme ruling and controlling body of the ANC”.

Its formidable powers include determining the ANC’s policy, programme, and constitution, electing the “top six” officials and choosing the 80 additional members of the national executive committee (NEC).

As President Jacob Zuma’s power has ebbed, his attempt to impose Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor has lost the little credibility it once enjoyed.

Given that the conference is now unlikely to assent easily to his plans for the future of the organisation, his strategists may contemplate four areas where there is space for escalation: rigging; smearing; vexatious litigation; and violence.

Rigging is harder than it seems, despite the money reportedly being pumped into vote buying, and the membership system manipulation that is now prevalent across the whole movement.

The composition of the NEC-appointed electoral commission that will oversee the elections will reflect the major factions contesting the conference. A deeply divided NEC will also be involved in overseeing auditing and delegate selection processes.

While the Mangaung conference saw Zuma walk away with an easy victory, he will not have the secretary-general on his side in December.

All bets are off once the conference convenes. Delegates will be asked to endorse the names of the electoral commissioners nominated by the NEC. Representatives from each province and league will then be added to the commission to oversee the nitty-gritty of the election.

Many of these representatives will work hard to protect the integrity of the secret ballot: processes will be designed to exclude electronic interventions by spies and crooks. The electoral commission will not allow cellphones to be taken into the polling booth to prevent delegates from forwarding pictures of their ballot papers to paymasters.

The ANC constitution states that the conference “shall determine its own procedures in accordance with democratic principles”. As was the case when Thabo Mbeki was defeated at the 2007 Polokwane conference, delegates are likely to insist on a painstaking manual count of all votes.

In these ways, Zuma’s security state and money-politics advantages could be neutralised. Indeed, the faction associated with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa — former trade unionists both — is far more experienced than Zuma’s at the manipulation of contested mass elections.

The smearing of candidates on the Ramaphosa slate was always inevitable. The “nuclear relationship” between President Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, poses a real risk of escalation.

A joint report in January by the three key US intelligence agencies observed that the Russian intelligence apparatus used sophisticated instruments to discredit presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Moscow blended “covert intelligence operations” such as cyber activity with “overt efforts” by “government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media trolls”.

The US intelligence reports plausibly argued that, “Moscow will apply lessons learnt from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide”.

Smear-scepticism, however, is now well established in SA. And any attempt to remove Ramaphosa from the ticket could simply result in the elevation of another candidate with a similar support profile — for example Lindiwe Sisulu — to the top of the anti-Zuma slate.

What then of legal interventions? A Constitutional Court ruling in 2012, inspired by nefarious factional activities in the Free State ANC, established the courts’ authority to intervene where parties have not followed their own internal procedures. A potentially significant judgment concerning the election of the current KwaZulu-Natal leadership in November 2015 is currently awaited.

In the run-up to the December event — or, worse still, while delegates are jostling on the conference floor — judges could find themselves wrestling with numerous vexatious legal actions. The Ramaphosa camp could be enjoined to respect challenges designed for evidently dubious ends.

The judges, however, have shown excellent political judgment in recent years, and they can hopefully draw on their reserves of popular legitimacy.

For all these reasons, it is in the field of political violence that the Zuma camp possesses its clearest comparative advantage. The leadership of the security cluster is entirely partisan, and the current ministers responsible for policing inspire little or no confidence. The intensity of intimidation in political meetings and the incidence of political assassination are already sharply up.

Zuma’s political organisers, should they so wish, could probably generate an exceptionally volatile external environment in December. It is conceivable that large-scale student protests, threats to social grant delivery and ethnic mobilisation around an alleged anti-KwaZulu-Natal conspiracy could occur simultaneously.

Within the conference itself, some concerning recent trends — the corralling or exclusion of the media and the presence of large cohorts of intimidating state security personnel — might increase the vulnerability of conference delegates to coercion.

But the ANC, for all its faults, is now a very mature political organisation. Chicanery, lies and violence are part of cadres’ routine political repertoires.

The president’s camp may decide to escalate across a range of fronts, but it is difficult to see which real surprises it can unleash. Zuma’s chances of success in his efforts to control conference outcomes are increasingly slim.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.