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Jacob Zuma: His leadership and corruption scandals have thrown the ANC into crisis (Government ZA /GCIS CC BY-ND 2.0)


South Africa is a country in suspense, waiting for the fallout from a series of interlinked decisions. First, the liberal opposition Democratic Alliance  (DA) last month won Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town in the local elections, a huge blow to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Second, the country is waiting on tenterhooks for the credit rating agencies to re-rate the country’s creditworthiness in November: most fear relegation to junk status. Third,  President Jacob Zuma, a crony capitalist par excellence, is trying to hand as many favours as possible to his allies, the Gupta family. This is being resisted by his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and a showdown between Zuma and Gordhan cannot be long averted. Finally, there is the question of the presidential succession, to be decided by an ANC conference in 2017. Rumours fly that Zuma has already accepted $200 million from Vladimir Putin to commission a string of Russian nuclear power stations; that fearing jail,  he is planning to retire offshore; and that he will push his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, into the presidency to succeed him. And so on.

One could write: “Apart from that, normal politics goes on.” In one sense that is true — we have rioting students burning down university buildings, affirmative action causing a flight of white cricketers and rugby players — but mainly it’s not true simply because the ANC, which has ruled the country since 1994, is disassembling before one’s eyes. There is an almost complete absence of leadership. Zuma remains largely passive when in-country, and he’s often out. The police, doubtless on his instructions, endlessly harass and threaten the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. Not only do individual cabinet ministers squabble in public and make unilateral decisions without any semblance of cabinet co-ordination but even subordinate state agencies sometimes make large policy announcements, apparently chancing their arm to see what they can get away with. Many of the ministers are clearly buffoons, while ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte has made announcements that suggest complete economic illiteracy. But then the president himself has said he doesn’t really believe in markets and relies on Marx’s labour theory of value, which even Marxist economists stopped using in the 1950s.

As the local elections approached, propaganda from the ANC and the South African Communist Party (the parties are allies and all but indistinguishable) became increasingly frenzied. Opinion polls showing the ANC behind were denounced as having “a regime change agenda” and the SACP demanded that their publication be stopped. There were furious demands to “defend the capital”, and posters went up widely enjoining us all to “defend the revolution”. Zuma, for his part, threatened his audiences that if the opposition won cities like Port Elizabeth “the ancestors will never forgive you”. This led to considerable doubts as to whether the ANC would actually accept an adverse result. In Port Elizabeth the (theoretically) Independent Electoral Commission displayed great reluctance to declare an opposition victory but in the end the verdict of the polls was respected.

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