RW Johnson on Russia’s ANC funding, its Middle East gambit and the Zuma impact

Political scientist, historian and former Oxford Don RW Johnson unpacks the likely impact of Jacob Zuma on the ANC’s 2024 Election prospects after the former president’s new party this week drew 20% of the vote in the first by-election it contested. This wide-ranging interview also provides context on the most likely source of the ANC’s miraculous financial turnaround from bankruptcy to rude health – and why money is so critical in South African elections. He spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Intro and Jacob Zuma’s Entry into Politics
  • 03:30 – Impact of Jacob Zuma’s Entry on the EFF
  • 05:57 – ANC’s Financial Turnaround and Speculation on Funding
  • 08:16 – Naledi Pandor’s Conversion to Islam and Muslim Influence in Foreign Affairs
  • 10:11 – State of the Nation Address as a Campaign Speech
  • 11:12 – Importance of Funding in South African Elections
  • 12:32 – Voter Behavior and ANC’s Distribution of Goods
  • 13:49 – Likelihood of ANC-EFF Coalition
  • 15:00 – Possibility of ANC-DA Merger or Coalition
  • 15:36 – Secularization of Politics and Changing Voter Behavior
  • 18:29 – Hope for a Functional Democracy in South Africa
  • 20:12 – Conclusions

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Edited transcript of the Interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Alec Hogg: I can hardly believe it’s been four months since we caught up with R.W. Johnson, our most popular columnist on BizNews. It’s long overdue, and we’ve got lots to talk about, especially the entry of Jacob Zuma into South African politics and some reflection on this week’s events.

RW Johnson: Jacob Zuma’s entry might have an impact. He’s drawing large crowds, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, and his party, while lacking a clear stance, seems to be gaining traction.

Alec Hogg: Could Zuma end up in parliament again?

RW Johnson: No, that’s unlikely. He’s on a presidential pension and starting a parliamentary career again isn’t in his plans. Both Zuma and Thabo Mbeki seem to believe the ANC is on the verge of collapse and are leveraging the situation.

Alec Hogg: Would Zuma’s influence affect the EFF?

RW Johnson: The EFF may feel pressure, especially in KZN where they didn’t perform well in a recent by-election. However, their position could strengthen in urban areas where dissatisfaction with the ANC is high.

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Alec Hogg: Your recent column discussed the ANC’s financial turnaround, which some speculate is linked to international events. What’s your take?

RW Johnson: While it’s speculation, it’s unlikely that countries like Iran or Qatar would fund the ANC for their stance on international issues. The source of funding is more likely to be Russia, given their interest in the ANC retaining power.

Alec Hogg:
Hmm. It’s interesting as well that the foreign minister, the South African foreign minister, has converted to Islam, or is that just talk? Is that the reality that Naledi Pandor is supposedly herself a Muslim and as a consequence, she has very strong views, which the country is now officially sharing.

RW Johnson:
Well, I believe that her conversion to Islam was to do with her marriage and that her husband’s a Muslim and that she converted. Look, I’ve known of many cases in Durban, in and around Durban, where Muslims and Hindus married and usually what happens is that the Muslim says, look, we’ve got to have a single religion in the house and it ends up being Islam usually. And so I’m not too surprised by that. But I think that look, it’s been the case almost since ’94 that the Muslim influence at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been very, very strong. Under Mbeki and Mandela, we had Aziz Pahat basically running things. And he appointed a series of other Muslims to key positions within that ministry. So the Muslim influence has been quite consistent there for 20, 30 years, actually, if you have a look at it. But I’m sure that she has all the zeal of the convert and that seems to have helped along the way. But I think it would have happened without that. I think that there were reasons of state for what they did and it certainly seems to help them with their election campaign so You know they will feel justified by that alone.

Alec Hogg:
Going on to that election campaign, yesterday we had the State of the Nation address. I don’t know how much attention you pay to that, but generally speaking, it appeared to be almost a campaign speech by Cyril Ramaphosa. What was your reading?

RW Johnson:
Well, it was a campaign speech and that’s exactly what I expected and I think anyone ought to have expected. I mean, we know that he is in that sort of mode. I think what is striking is we still don’t have an election date. If it is May the 22nd, which it seems a likely thing, we’re still three or four months away from that. And I think it’s worth noticing that. You know, this is a very lengthy campaign and the ANC have thrown themselves in very hard, very early on. And to that extent, they know that this is a very, very sort of serious and possibly desperate campaign. They’re giving it all they’ve got from a long way out.

Alec Hogg:
How important is it to be well-funded in South Africa for an election? And I guess there, I’m getting back to what you were saying earlier about Russia and the possibility or probability that Russia supported.

RW Johnson:
Well, I think it is very important, particularly if you’re the ANC or a would-be competitor party with the ANC, because, as we know, ANC campaigning involves lots of food parcels, lots of t-shirts, and lots of basic meals offered at rallies, quite a lot from food parcels. So that… The giveaways, as it were, are very considerable. They also very often involve many busing people in from remote areas, which means hiring coaches and so on. So you spend a lot of money on those sorts of things, which are not necessarily part of everyone’s election campaign, but they’re certainly part of an ANC campaign, quite apart from state giveaways like extra social grants.

Alec Hogg:
It’s interesting to read some of the feedback coming out of Vryheid after that election that the EFF had attempted to play the same game, food parcels, t-shirts, et cetera, but it only ended up with 13 votes. So the criticism or the commentary was people are getting smarter. They’re taking the food parcels but voting for who they want to anyway. Might we be maturing to that degree yet?

RW Johnson:
Well, I think, you know, that this has been the philosophy within the ANC and thus the EFF for a very long time. That they’ve always said to their activists that if people are offering you bribes of any sort, do take them. But of course, don’t do what they ask because there’s no way of checking. And… That has always been the, you know, you’re encouraged to behave that way. But look, I don’t think we should read too much into the EFF not doing well in Vryheid. It’s never been an area where they were strong and I wouldn’t expect it. I think we have to wait to get more urban results from KZN to see what’s really going on.

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Alec Hogg:
For some time now, you’ve thought that after the election, the most likely result will be an ANC-EFF coalition running the country. Given the developments in the last few months, do you still think that’s the most likely outcome?

RW Johnson:
Well, it’s not, of course, the outcome that the ANC would prefer. I’m sure they would prefer it if they could get 45, 46 % and then do a deal with the ACDP and other small parties. Equally favoured would be a deal with the IFP. Probably their most suitable of all. And after all… they did have an effective coalition with the IFP for years at the national level before. So I think that either of those would be preferable to a deal with the EFF, who would be much more complex and demanding and who are a serious competitor. The IFP is a competitor in KZN but nowhere else, whereas the EFF are now a competitor across the board. And I mean eating into the ANC vote, which is serious and alarming to the ANC.

Alec Hogg:
And that always possible merger or coalition with the DA. Do you put much credence on that as a possibility?

RW Johnson:
I think it’s the last preference. I think they would, if faced with a choice between the EFF and the DA, I’m sure they would choose the EFF.

Alec Hogg:
Mr. Johnson, just generally speaking, how long does it take for the population to stop treating political parties like a football team you support through thick and thin, and to start rewarding them for good governance and punishing them for bad?

RW Johnson:
This is a subject I’ll address at the BizNews Conference, the secularisation of politics. Over time, politics becomes more about who gets what, when, and how. It’s happening faster now due to the ANC’s failures. African nationalist parties tend to lose urban support first, as seen with the ANC. This process is accelerating, making these questions relevant.

Alec Hogg:
Do you have hope for a more functional democracy in 2024?

RW Johnson:
The opposition aims for the big metros: Gauteng, KZN, and Western Cape. If they win over half in these provinces, it would signal significant change. Losing control means ANC loses patronage and the ability to change the constitution. Losing all three metros would indicate a downward spiral for the ANC. If this change occurs in major urban centres, it will reshape the political landscape.

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