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However, this was quickly followed by the ANC threatening to make the cities they had lost “ungovernable” and by initial council meetings where the ANC caucus tried to prevent the new administration from being sworn in. In Pretoria this was followed by a series of ANC-led illegal land invasions in which squatters grabbed public land and put up shacks, forcing the municipality to evict them and thus incur the ignominy of being portrayed as apartheid lookalikes. But this is all part of the rather muscular style of South African politics. The really important thing is that the ANC seems habituated to the rules of electoral democracy and this gives one some — not complete, but some — confidence that it may one day accept the loss of national power in good part.

The second issue — the possible downrating of South Africa to junk bond status — is still moot though most market sentiment is that it will happen, causing a stockmarket and currency downgrade of some severity. The result will, of course, be higher interest rates on all forms of government debt, increasingly tight constraints on government spending and, ultimately, an increased possibility that the country will be forced towards an IMF bail-out. All this is some way off and the ANC still lives in a dreamworld where the Brics banks will lend them lots of money at no interest and without conditions. Reality is likely to be a lot less comfortable and the crunch will be felt first in South Africa’s host of loss-making state-owned industries. South African Airways, for example, is run by one of Zuma’s girlfriends, Dudu Myeni, who is therefore unsackable despite her complete lack of business or aviation experience and the huge losses SAA has incurred under her care. It is doubtful if any commercial airline would employ Ms Myeni even as a receptionist.

The conflict between Zuma and Gordhan is a conflict between what is known in South Africa as “tenderpreneurs” (those who have become rich on the back of favoured access to government contracts) and the Treasury, which is attempting to conduct economic policy on rational grounds rather than favouring this or that tenderpreneur. Zuma and his extended family are deeply indebted to the immigrant Gupta family, who accordingly tend to get the lion’s share of contracts. Indeed, if managers in state corporations do not give tenders to the Guptas they will get threatened, bullied and, if necessary, sacked. Other ANC politicians report that the Guptas have promised them cabinet jobs, that the family knows cabinet decisions before ministers do and that they can get any minister fired. This has led to an increasing row over “state capture” in which even the SACP has roused itself to protest.

Zuma is universally regarded as a venal, bought man. What is remarkable is that the Guptas have behaved so provocatively and thus far got away with it. There is no doubt that African nationalists of all shades would like to treat them in the same way that Idi Amin treated his Asians. The Guptas have announced that they are selling all their South African assets and getting out, but currently they are only one step ahead of the lynch mob and they had better be quick. Zuma, for his part, seems to have decided that if he can no longer depend on Gupta favours, he had better do a sunset deal with Putin. But no one believes the South African Treasury can afford one trillion rand for new nuclear power stations. If Gordhan will not sign off on this, it will be the compelling reason for Zuma to sack him and appoint a more pliant finance minister.

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