[OPINION] President Zuma is holding SA to ransom

It’s been another heady week for South African politics. We are now firmly in the ‘will he, won’t he?’ moment after President Jacob Zuma recalled Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan from an investor road show in the UK. At the time of writing it is still unclear why Zuma did this, but a Cabinet reshuffle seems on the cards after a flurry of meetings at Luthuli House.

Zuma is doing a very good job of holding the country to ransom as he presumably ponders when to wield his axe against Gordhan, deputy Finance Minister Jonas and possibly even Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile.

This is the backdrop against which ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral took place. Zuma did not attend after the family asked that he not speak at the funeral. Kathrada, after all, had been an outspoken critic of Zuma and called for him to resign last year.

Kathrada was a man of principle and it saddened him to see the ANC being taken over by what he called ‘come latelys’ and rent-seekers. It would have been entirely inappropriate for Zuma to speak given the damage he is doing to our country and its economy and his careless disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law.

Here is a president who is perfectly prepared to risk the country’s future through one reckless act simply to save himself and his merry band of corrupt cronies. But this is who Zuma is and so we should not be surprised. His time in office has given us plenty of insight into his character.

He has undermined democratic institutions and abused state resources for private gain. He has become a one man ‘wrecking ball’ and many in the ANC have stood by passively while the party itself has been dragged further into the abyss.

The ANC has consistently shown itself unable to deal with corruption within its ranks and this has worsened given the impunity with which Zuma governs.

As the ANC policy conference beckons, one wonders how open discussions on the state of the party can happen effectively? Should Gordhan go, the mood will be even more soured and the game would have changed irrevocably.

In its optimistic statement on the release of its policy documents recently, the ANC declared that, ‘“…. (it) has always been a people’s parliament and that it remains vitally important that the decisions of the ANC are shaped by popular mass endorsement at all times.”

At the heart of the policy discussion the ANC has set itself the task of ‘a wide-ranging policy discussion’ to examine the country’s ‘development trajectory’ and the triple challenge of ‘poverty, inequality and unemployment’.

As is usual with ANC policy documents, one would do well to look past the political jargon and focus on what lies beneath. The ‘strategy and tactics’ document is a good indicator of how the ANC views the current balance of forces, as is its reflection on ‘organisational renewal’. It continues to want to retain the balance between being liberation movement and modern-day political party.

A grim assessment of the internal workings of the ANC sits at the heart of the document when it says, “The ANC faces declining fortunes. Internal squabbles, money politics, corruption and poor performance in government all conspire to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public”.

It goes on to talk about the dangers of a party and a state which are ‘hollowed out’ and the deleterious impact that has on governance. The discussion document recognises that the ANC is increasingly losing the trust of the people as shown by its declining electoral performance and intense public criticism.

No-one can disagree with this assessment. The challenge, as always, is what will the ANC do about all this once the grim picture has been painted?

More immediately, what does it do with Zuma himself? It talks in general about oversight of SOEs and also that SOEs should be compelled to report corruption to law enforcement agencies. In addition, it calls for the modernisation of the public service and supporting institutions supporting democracy. But we have heard all this before. And while the ANC talks the talk on corruption, it needs to prove to itself and the citizenry that it can walk the walk.

The ANC has shown itself weak and divided even as Zuma recalled Gordhan from abroad this week. It cannot act decisively, though now is probably a good time to throw down the gauntlet so people are counted for which faction they are in. It was predictably weak on the Nkandla matter and even now has not comprehensively dealt with the allegations of ‘state capture’.

Our democratic institutions like the Hawks, police service and State Security Agency are in disarray and hamstrung by factional politics and corruption, and yet the ANC has been unable to lead convincingly.

As far back as 2007, then secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe warned of “the cancer of corruption eating away at the ANC”.

In December 2005 then President Thabo Mbeki addressed an ANC staff lekgotla and spoke at length about the “new cadre” of the movement. Mbeki’s analysis then described how at successive intervals in the ANC’s history, a “new cadre” was required. Mbeki pointed out that the challenges for the ANC was then dealing with “being in power”: “we have seen these people attracted to join the ANC as a bee is to a honey pot. They come with the view that they will use access to power for personal benefit.”

He went on pointedly to say, “We have been trying to raise this matter for some time now”, before listing examples of those who may carry an ANC membership card but, in their actions of stoking violence to gain positions, “are not ANC”.

At Polokwane the deep strains of intolerance that had been building across the tripartite alliance during the Mbeki years were felt almost from the first day of that ANC conference. Ahead of the conference there were already significant gripes regarding membership numbers and whether some delegates at Polokwane were members of branches in good standing or not.

The ANC, long detached from its founding ideals and its members’ voices, is in serious trouble and no amount of papering over the cracks will show otherwise. How does it therefore rejuvenate itself and is that even possible? It has managed to do so over successive generations and mostly had the calibre of leadership when it mattered most. That cannot be said of the current ANC, a shadow of its former self.

The political moment is urgent given the Sword of Damocles hanging over Gordhan’s head as well as his deputy. Now is not the time for polite silence or a ‘wait and see’ approach. At Kathrada’s funeral the spirit of defiance was evident as Gordhan was warmly applauded. How the ANC takes that spirit forward is unclear given the firmly poised knife-edge of factional politics we are on. But, perhaps the people should wrest the task from them all?

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