In February 2018, Jacob Zuma resigned as president of the Republic of South Africa. He was forced to step down by his party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), because he had become the face of corruption and kleptocracy in the country. In fact, corruption was no longer endemic. It had become systemic. In other words, it had become the dominant culture in the state as well as in the nexus between the state and the private sector. Because of this, Zuma’s image crisis caused serious damage to the image of the ruling party and, as a result, the ANC was forced to act against him or face the prospect of falling below fifty-percent in the 2019 general election. Also, the ANC leadership was compelled to ask Zuma to resign as head of state or face the possibility of losing the Gauteng province as well in the same 2019 general election. We must not forget that on several occasions the ANC defended Zuma and voted against parliamentary motions of no confidence against the former president. Wrongly, the media and others accused the ANC of failing to put the country ahead of the ruling party’s interests. They were wrong.
The ANC, in defending Zuma, was foregrounding neither the interests of the ruling party nor those of its president – Jacob Zuma. What they were defending were their own individual careers. When it was in their interests to defend Zuma they opposed all parliamentary motions of no confidence against the former president. When the antipathy towards Zuma became a groundswell of opposition and then mutated into the Zuma Must Go movement of citizens and civil society formations, ANC politicians panicked and realised that they faced the risk of losing their jobs after the 2019 elections. They did not force Zuma to resign in defence of our democratic gains. Nor did they pressure him to step down as head of state in the national interest. They did so to avoid losing their electoral majorities because, were that to happen, they would lose their jobs too. As the ANC did then, it is again leading the country from behind because of public pressure.
After showing a healthy appetite for corruption for so long, the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa are now flirting with pious and self-righteous indignation to placate a citizenry that has reached the end of its tether because of the ruling party’s broken promises when it comes to tackling the cancer of corruption. So, when it comes to the latest upgrade of promises by the president and the National Executive Committee of the ruling party to deal with corrupt members, I am not holding my breath. If ANC leaders must chew water and do nothing about making sure that corrupt members and leaders of the party face the music in order to save their jobs, the national interest is not going to be a priority. Even if they decide to do the ‘right’ thing, self-preservation will still be uppermost in their political calculations. In short, as citizens we must be independent and do what we need to do in defence of our interests irrespective of what comes out of the mouths of the president and those around him?
How did we get here in the short space of twenty-six years?
As I said in a previous article, weaknesses in our political system are partly the cause of a lack of political or revolutionary morality in the ruling party. Because our electoral politics has, for too long, been uncompetitive to the benefit of the ANC, there has been a dearth of incentives for ANC members not to be corrupt. By extension, there have been no incentives for the ANC to act decisively against corrupt members and those against whom allegations are made. In addition, it is quite possible that revolutionary morality and politics cannot co-exist, especially in the context of state power. The change in the relationship between the ANC and state power is, therefore, a critical factor. But we cannot rule out the possibility that the ANC, before and after the advent of democracy in 1994, was infiltrated by people who were part of the agenda to derail and destroy the ANC by destroying its image thus causing it to become alienated from its support base.
In other words, corruption is probably not only symptomatic of the greed of too many in the ANC, but is also the weapon through which the dream of liberation must be deferred permanently. For those who infiltrated the ANC to destroy it, factionalism, if it does not exist, must come into being. If it already exists, the factional battles must become so deep that, as a ruling party, the ANC must spend as little time as possible focusing on the imperatives of reconstruction and development. This argument, however, can itself become a potent weapon in factional battles. This means that, in the cut-throat and cut-and-thrust world of factional politics, members of opposing factions may be accused of being part of an agenda to destroy the ANC for insisting on decisive steps against those against whom serious allegations are made.
To understand the current crisis, however, we need to go back to the Polokwane factional dynamic. The Polokwane factional battles provided the clearest evidence that a situation had arisen in the ANC where members had to be loyal more to the interests of certain leaders and members in order to advance their own. In the case of the Polokwane factional dynamic, some members of the ANC realised that victory would be contingent on the capacity to act outside the disciplinary code of the party. They even created parallel structures through which they could pursue their factional agendas in defence of Zuma. Their opponents, on the other hand, had access to and relied on this access to state power in attempts to neutralise their factional foes in the Zuma camp.
It is in this context that former president, Thabo Mbeki, was accused of using state institutions to bolster his own interests. It is in the same context that, at the 2007 Polokwane conference, the supporters of Zuma had enough delegates on their side to push through a conference resolution whose implementation led to the disbandment of the Scorpions and the establishment of the Hawks. It was, therefore, not surprising to hear Ramaphosa this week confirming that ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, had spoken to him about the abuse of state institutions and their deployment against political enemies. Ramaphosa went further to confirm that he was himself a victim of this kind of abuse. In my view, however, those who are deployed in state institutions simply anticipate the wishes of those in power and, therefore, do not always wait to be instructed by them. This speaks to an interesting dynamic. When new managers are appointed to head an institution such as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the appearance of change may be just that – mere appearance. When a faction triumphs and it deploys its own in the state, managers of state institutions may simply anticipate its wishes. This, they may do by targeting ‘corrupt’ elements with the approval of sections of the citizenry and the media, especially when such ‘corrupt’ elements are regarded as the demons in the battle between the good guys (the victorious faction) and the bad guys (the losers). When institutions, voluntarily or involuntarily, become a component of factional dynamics, it does not matter whether those deployed to them are acting in good or bad faith.
The ethical content of their choices and actions will be questioned by some of the protagonists. This is damaging to the integrity of both the institutions and those deployed to them. The biggest losers, however, are the people, especially when they succumb to manipulation by the different factions and are seduced by the fine words of politicians and their apologists in the media and other places where political reality is manufactured. These manufactured political realities, when they cause ‘manufactured consensus’ to exist, can be quite divisive in society and may cause state institutions to suffer some paralysis. That is why civil society and so-called ordinary citizens must be independent from, and of both the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys. They must be embedded with neither. They, as I argued in the last article, must be loyal, almost exclusively, to that which is noble about the will of the people. This kind of commitment is something citizens will never get from political factions in the ruling party or the individual politicians in whose names such factions exist. It is this thought that was dominant in my mind as I pondered over the tale of two letters – the one written by Ramaphosa in which he laments the involvement of ANC members in corrupt activities, and the missive written by Zuma in response to the president?
What provoked the two men to write the letters?
In the run-up to the 2017 national conference of the ANC, Ramaphosa positioned himself as the clean governance and anti-corruption candidate in the leadership contest against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Dlamini-Zuma, who enjoyed the support of the faction of many who were part of the Jacob Zuma faction, was tainted by the perception that she had been captured by a faction that is responsible for state capture. In addition, her supporters were associated with policy positions such as radical economic transformation, expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank. The only explanation I have for the R1 billion donated to the Ramaphosa campaign by, among others, components of white capital is that they genuinely believed that the sabre-rattling of the so-called Radical Economic Transformation forces that supported Dlamini-Zuma was, unlike the rationality of the Ramaphosa camp, a real threat to white economic and other interests. If my explanation is correct, then it must be true that the letters from Ramaphosa and Zuma were motivated by contradictory impulses.
Ostensibly, Ramaphosa is concerned about the alleged, imagined and real corruption of ANC members. Otherwise, why would he refer to the ANC as ‘accused number one’. Ostensibly, this is precisely what angered Zuma and, therefore, moved him to write a stinging retort to Ramaphosa. By arguing that the ANC is accused number one, Ramaphosa effectively condemned an entire organisation and thus impugned the integrity of thousands of its innocent members. Zuma argues in his letter that Ramaphosa must single out those members of the ANC who are corrupt instead of tarring every member, particularly the rural and urban poor with the same corruption brush. What was Ramaphosa’s target audience? If people give you R1 billion of their ill or well-gotten gains because, in you, they see someone who will deal effectively with corrupt members of the faction which opposes you and, in part, it is because of this injection of cash you are now president, you better keep your promise and deliver their scalps.
My suspicion, therefore, is that the ANC was not the primary concern of the president. Yes, he is worried about the anger of citizens mutating into heavy electoral losses for the ANC in 2021 and 2024. In other words, he is of no use to his donors if the ANC loses its electoral majority. To prevent this, Ramaphosa had to write a letter to the ANC in which he simultaneously chides his corrupt party and maybe even succeeds in mobilising public outrage against factional foes who invented the variant of corruption that the politically opportunistic sell to the politically obtuse as state capture’. What about Zuma? What was his primary audience? First of all, for reasons I will share with you on another occasion, Zuma’s letter was not only ill-advised but was also one of the best things to happen to Ramaphosa since he became the beneficiary of the R1 billion prepaid voucher. In my view, Zuma, who understands very well that Ramaphosa’s main challenge is that of internal opposition in the ruling party, sought, through his letter, to mobilise ‘ordinary’ members of the ANC against Ramaphosa. While the letters of the two men succeeded in exciting the popular and populist imagination, there is one thing that remains the same about the ANC and its capacity to deal with corruption: The ANC is, as I have said before, a three-legged elephant that is being asked to run like Simba the lion.