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[OPINION] South Africa is a political ‘hot mess’

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.” – Cicero

This quote is attributed to Cicero, the Roman lawyer who himself railed against the excesses of the late Roman Republic in many of his prosecutions, most famously against Gaius Verres. Ironically, one of the charges against Verres was that he enriched himself through public construction contracts, most notably fixing the temple of Castor and Pollux. The Roman Republic eventually destroyed itself through corruption, disorganisation and bloody battle.

But this is 2017 and we should have learnt from history. In South Africa, it would seem that the ANC has not.

In the run-up to its December elective conference the ANC is so deeply divided that the candidates’ ‘campaigns’ (such as they are) are devoid of much substance, pretty uninspiring and laced with ‘dirty tricks’.

President Zuma himself has foisted Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma onto the ANC and now onto Parliament after her African Union sojourn. She is uninspiring, to say the least. Her recent television interview with John Perlman was lacklustre and she spent much of the time monopolising the conversation. One gets the feeling she is not a very good listener.

Cyril Ramaphosa, on the other hand, has had his own ‘dirty tricks’ woes and many are suggesting that he is the victim of a State Security hack.

In between all this are other hopefuls like Lindiwe Sisulu, Zweli Mkhize and Jeff Radebe. Zuma doubtless is attempting to orchestrate and manipulate the outcome and a few state resources come in handy when trying to do this. It’s a political ‘hot mess’.

As a result of this political power struggle, many of our institutions are in disarray, from Parliament, the Public Protector’s Office to Sars - all being dangerously caught up in the ANC’s factional battles.

Since the motion of no confidence vote, there has been talk of a Cabinet reshuffle. Zuma only ever uses these to punish his political detractors; they are never about actually improving governance. One wonders each morning what fresh hell the president might unleash, spurred on by his merry band of corrupt and compromised supporters.

It’s an untenable situation, causing untold harm to the economy, policy paralysis and a split in the Cabinet itself.

The leadership vacuum is costing us dearly. Into the convenient vacuum Zuma has created, ignorance falls and the public debate becomes poisoned.

Where there is a vacuum of leadership and commitment to constitutional principles, there is room for all manner of men and women to step into the breach. It is the environment that Zuma and ‘his’ part of the ANC have created, as far back as Polokwane.

Anyone who believed Zuma would be able to provide our country with the requisite leadership was not paying attention during his years as MEC for Economic Affairs and Tourism in KwaZulu-Natal or during the tawdry Schabir Shaik trial or, indeed, his rape trial. He was never good enough for South Africa, with poor judgement and an inability to keep away from unsavoury manipulators. He has now become ‘the traitor who moves within the gate freely’ and his ‘sly whispers’ provide the opportunity for the likes of Bathabile Dlamini and Faith Muthambi - to name but two ministers - to act in ways that are entirely unaccountable.

Zuma, as Cicero put it, ‘works secretly’ and it is because of this that the compromised Public Protector believes she has his protection when she seeks the advice of the Presidency and State Security before penning a report. Zuma’s people are within the state and they are ‘the enemy within’ both the state and the ANC. Ramaphosa knows he has to watch his back.

This past week, former president (for a short while) and ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe had a dire warning for the ANC. He was speaking to the BBC on Hardtalk and did not mince words when he said, “At the rate at which it’s sliding to the bottom, it may actually lose the elections.” Motlanthe added that the ANC has to lose an election to save itself. He went on to say, “Those elements that are in it for the largesse would quit and only then would the possibility arise for salvaging whatever is left of it.”

He is probably right and would, in all likelihood, take South Africa down the rocky road of coalition government. After the ANC’s losses in the 2016 local government election, it has shown itself incapable of self-correcting which does not augur well for its future prospects. Then the question becomes how the ANC would deal with a split in its ranks, or, a loss in a general election.

Zuma has all the characteristics of a ‘strong man’ who may wish to cling to power despite his ever-weakening position. We are a long way from that scenario, but South Africans thus need to be alert and assert constitutional rights during these times of political opportunism. There are signs of healthy push-back by some in the ANC, but also by civil society and the media who have been unrelenting in seeking the truth in relation to the Guptas, their association with Zuma and contracts from which they benefitted. In addition, civil society organisations are increasingly vocal about the links between corruption and the failure of the state to deliver basic services, as well as the abuse of state resources to clamp down on dissent.

We are just about surviving the “fools and the ambitious”. Now it is time to deal with “the treason from within” through every constitutional means possible, because a rotten ANC affects us all. After all, Rome was eventually destroyed by men who over-reached and became too powerful for their own good.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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