[OPINION] Connecting the dots in a corrupt state

It is now clear. President Jacob Zuma will not be forced out of office - at least not before the ANC elective conference in December or perhaps even before the end of his term of office. In the remaining time he will do whatever is possible to shore up further support and strengthen his personal patronage networks. He will also try to ensure that whoever succeeds him is someone of his choosing.

A media frenzy took hold this weekend as the ANC NEC met and the former ANC policy tsar Joel Netshitenzhe brought a motion of no confidence in Zuma. All weekend we were told the ‘ANC was locked in negotiations’, that ‘Zuma was fighting for his political life’ and that this was a ‘moment of reckoning’.

Predictably it turned out to be none of the above. Although Netshitenzhe and others were completely correct in taking a principled stand, it was always going to be an uphill battle and one the Zuma faction would win. Former Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, who led a charge against Zuma in November, has said that those opposed to Zuma would continue their fight for clean governance.

Our country is weighed down by the incomprehensible. How is it possible that Zuma survives yet another scandal? For every victory we have ‘celebrated’ in an attempt to bring Zuma down, he has survived. The Nkandla matter was a case in point, as was the Public Protector’s report on state capture. Zuma is taking Madonsela’s recommendation that the Chief Justice appoint a judge himself, on review. Quite obviously Zuma himself wants to appoint a rather less independent-minded judge. Again, we have connected those dots.

The past two weeks have been consumed with Eskom CEO Brian Molefe’s reinstatement and the semantics of whether he resigned, took early retirement or indeed, more bizarrely, unpaid leave. As Minister of Public Enterprises, Lynne Brown contorted her way through the parliamentary hearing, her former Cabinet colleague Pravin Gordhan took her on directly. At the centre of it all was ‘state capture’ and whether the Guptas had in fact given any instructions to reinstate Molefe. It’s becoming an easy part of our political parlance now - who is ‘captured’ and ‘have the Guptas been involved in political decision-making processes?’

On the weekend, further fuel was added to the fire by the release of a string of emails allegedly indicating that the Guptas have been pulling the strings behind the scenes all along on behalf of our compromised president. Gordhan and his former deputy Mcebisi Jonas have repeatedly called on us all to ‘connect the dots’. Well, after the Public Protector’s report on the State of Capture released in late October last year and subsequent events implicating the Guptas, we are all pretty much done with connecting the dots. We see it all in technicolour now. Mostly the ministers taking the inexplicable political and policy decisions seem to be firmly in the Zuma/Gupta camp. Think Bathabile Dlamini and Lynne Brown. And after seeing the trail of leaked emails we see clearly why it is that Zuma did the unthinkable and appointed Malusi Gigaba as Finance Minister.

Anyone who truly thought Zuma would be booted out this past weekend was doing a bit of daydreaming. The balance of forces within the ANC is simply not tipped against Zuma right now. It is not merely about removing Zuma, after all. He represents a corrupt project at the heart of the state that will be hard to dislodge. His supporters and those who rely on the patronage of Zuma’s associates have a lot to lose. It’s no coincidence that the leaked emails suggest that Zuma has been trying to plot an eventual escape to Dubai. That’s how high the stakes are.

South Africa’s Constitution does not provide for presidential immunity. Zuma understands very well that with several charges of fraud and corruption hanging over his head, he may be a target for prosecution when he leaves office. This is why he is so keen to secure Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or someone equally pliable, as his successor.

The ANC for its part has neither the numbers nor the will to rid itself of the liability Zuma has become. An angry Zuma is said to have told the NEC meeting ‘don’t push me or else’. Or else what, we wonder? Does Zuma have so much dirt on his NEC colleagues that they dare not speak up?

It’s probably time to throw down that gauntlet and let him dish out the dirt. What more is there that can truly shock us, really? Zuma has held the country to ransom for far too long.

So, while the media, of necessity, has to focus on the immediate, we need to take a step back from the hype and look beyond Zuma. The ANC policy conference at the end of June will doubtless be a damp squib. The ANC has long since abandoned proper, thoughtful policy debates. Instead, we are treated to documents that are poorly edited and filled with empty rhetoric that will not deal with our country’s challenges. That policy conference will be more of a proxy leadership battle as the party ‘fights for its soul’ - to use another cliché.

Those who seek to oppose Zuma at the ANC elective conference in December will need to think beyond the immediate. The jury is out as to whether Ramaphosa and others who have thrown their hats into the ring can muster the numbers to defeat Zuma’s anointed successor. It is unclear whether they have the strategic insight to deal the Zuma faction a decisive blow. But the larger question that looms is whether in fact the ANC is capable of being saved? Or will it split yet again? And if it does, what does that mean for South African electoral politics? Coalition government may well be in our near future. Are we prepared for that? Is the opposition prepared for that? It’s a messy proposition, to be sure.

These are the questions we need to ask because when Zuma eventually goes, he will leave a country wrecked and institutions severely weakened.

The tragedy of Zuma’s ‘strong man’ politics is that our government has lost all perspective and direction.

South Africa needs to deal with the challenges of low growth, high unemployment and deep inequality, yet we are unable to have conversations of depth and complexity. The political project playing itself out is disinterested in the poor and finding solutions to our intractable socio-political challenges. As citizens we too need to look beyond the ANC and its internecine battles and look instead to galvanising ahead of the 2019 elections and strengthening our own forms of local and national activism. How do we fix the mess when Zuma has departed the stage? Will we be able to summon the will? Or will we all succumb to the Zuma-ANC’s destructive course of a corrupt, failed state?

Ultimately only ‘we, the people’ can connect the dots further and choose to dismantle the puzzle as it is currently constructed. That will take time and work beyond the immediate headline.

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