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The state remains vulnerable

Mar 22 2016 06:29
Daniel Silke

IT was no surprise that President Jacob Zuma's presidency survived the ANC v meeting this weekend, as the NEC is still indebted to the president and largely survives on his coat tails.

More significantly, the ANC is about to embark on its most competitive local government election ever and it desperately needed to present a relatively united front to fire up its somewhat punch-drunk alliance partners and party workers.

But the language and tone of secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s post-NEC statement and press conference perhaps told another story. There was enough rhetoric from Mantashe to suggest that the issue of the Gupta’s and "state capture" had hit a very raw nerve - at least with significant elements of the 100-strong body.

Although expressing its full support for Zuma, this was hardly a ringing endorsement. It was terse and within the context of Mantashe calling into question the role of the Guptas and their proxy media outlets, The New Age and ANN7. In other words, there was just sufficient public disdain in Mantashe’s demeanour to both severely admonish the Guptas and also (obliquely) point a finger at anyone deemed close to the Guptas (even Zuma).

You didn’t have to embarrass Zuma in the process – and Mantashe succeeded in a deft tightrope walk of providing a veneer of political unity yet clearly indicating his displeasure with the current state of affairs. Mantashe even went as far as to commend Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas on "doing the honourable thing" by coming forward with the revelations about the Gupta involvement in offering ministerial positions.

The NEC outcome therefore indicates that Zuma did not have it all his own way. Remember, Zuma’s wings had already been clipped in the unedifying Nhlanhla Nene debacle when Pravin Gordhan ousted his choice, Des van Rooyen.

There was therefore little indication from Mantashe that the pendulum of power had moved back to the president. Even the call by the NEC to take the state capture allegations further by instituting an internal investigation indicates the matter has rocked the higher echelons of the party.

While the ANC obviously wished to take control of the damaging public discourse by moving it internally, Mantashe is clearly putting the Guptas (and perhaps others) on a red alert.

In particular, the role played by The New Age and ANN7 in presenting a picture of deep division in the NEC will have touched a raw nerve. The Gutpa-owned media outlets – once thought to be broadly ANC supporting – were clearly used over the weekend to support a faction of the governing party and in so doing, may have deliberately sowed divisions or exacerbated existing ones.

While state capture is one thing, manipulating the discourse to expose fissures might in retrospect be more of a disaster for the Guptas than anything else.

Mantashe did succeed in efficiently covering all the bases, keeping Zuma in place and also creating a space for the ANC to begin the defence of its local government metros and councils.

More red flags

But - and here’s the rub for the rest of the year - while the NEC has diffused the current crisis of governance for now, there are any number of coming events that raise red flags in assessing the impact on the state.

Clearly, the increasing number of "Gupta rebels" will themselves create tension should they hold on to their positions. Reformers and status-quo conservatives simply will clash and future cabinet reshuffles will be a litmus test as to how Zuma can still mould positions of power to his liking, or whether he is effectively now a lame duck.

In addition, the country still needs to survive what is likely to be a very bruising local government election. The gloves will be off and opposition parties will be delighted that the Guptas provide electoral manna from heaven.

But recent times have seen the efficiency (and even independence) of the IEC questioned. The continued scrupulous transparency of the IEC is critical and will need to be watched even more carefully in an atmosphere of more competitive elections. Already there are hints of possible state capture of independent organs of the state (Sars/IEC) and this goes well beyond the business dealings of crony capitalism.

As if this is not enough, another event to flag is the looming October end-of-term of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Her replacement will be yet another sign of a variant of state capture, as her successor may play an even more important role in adjudicating the remaining years in office of Zuma. Again, any drift towards a political appointee may signal fresh battles ahead.

And finally, while the NEC neatly concluded its deliberations on Sunday night, the country still faces even more political intrigue and potential destabilisation.

The most dangerous time politically for South Africa is when reformers threaten the status quo and their vested interests. Already we have seen a trend towards dirty tricks viz Gordhan and the Hawks. For both politicians and the broader civil society, this is also a time of high risk. A drift towards more sinister politics will constitute a distinct danger to our democracy.

Beyond the Guptas, a variety of fundamental tests await our democracy. Vigilance on all these issues will be vital. But expect a messy period in which battles between the various factions rage on all fronts. South Africa’s democracy is really being tested – and in ways our founding fathers never really predicted – or perhaps they did with a constitution that will need extra ringfencing in future.

* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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