Paul Whelan: ANC to shelve & smoother ‘Zuma Capture’ dilemma. Breakpoint elections.

Politics, the more you try to understand, the more complicated it gets. And from the outside looking in, many voters see the simple solution to Guptagate recalling President Jacob Zuma. But this notion highlights the current dilemma the ruling party is faced with. This concept of ‘State Capture’ is nothing new, but Whelan says it’s more accurate to call it ‘Zuma Capture’. It happened before with Schabir Shaik but was quickly swept under the rug, then came Nkandla and now the Guptas. The problem if Zuma goes, it may create another party divide as with Thabo Mbeki’s departure. But keeping Zuma may see the voter numbers dwindle. Hence Whelan says the ultimate breakpoint will be the upcoming municipal elections, and if the there’s a clear sign of voter disapproval, action may be fast coming. – Stuart Lowman

By Paul Whelan*

When some idea or other becomes a buzzword, especially if it sounds impressive or alarming, it is time to stay calm, take a deep breath, and think about it. ‘Quiet diplomacy’, ‘western plot’, ‘National Development Plan’, ‘innocent until proven guilty’, are buzzwords that served the African National Congress’s political purposes in the past. Now the party has a dire warning for us of ‘state capture’.

State capture refers to the control of the state by substantial private interests, the state thereby losing its independence and the power to legislate and act for all. France before the 1789 Revolution provides a good example of state capture: the state was hobbled by a privileged untaxed aristocracy that meant it had to raise money by selling state offices to a rising business class.

South Africa's President and African National Congress (ANC) party president Jacob Zuma, flanked by National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC Treasury General Zweli Mkhize, reacts ahead of the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) three-day meeting in Pretoria, South Africa March 18, 2016. Picture taken March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
South Africa’s President and African National Congress (ANC) party president Jacob Zuma, flanked by National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC Treasury General Zweli Mkhize, reacts ahead of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) three-day meeting in Pretoria, South Africa March 18, 2016. Picture taken March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

As a modern example of state capture, the left like to point to the USA, the state there having lost much of its freedom of action to pressure groups. The NRA is the best known among very many.

State capture in this sense is not the condition of South Africa; it is a buzzword here. It asks South Africans to believe an affluent business family, the Guptas, appoint and remove cabinet ministers at will, and generally run the Republic without the knowledge and say-so of its ANC president. Since that is evidently impossible, it is necessary to look at who has most to gain from this fiction. It cannot be the Guptas, who are likely to end up scapegoats. It certainly will not be President Zuma. That leaves the party.

We must never forget South Africa is a party-state and the governing ANC is there to remain in power. No political organization manages that by sticking rigidly to principles or individuals. The ANC’s priority always is to shelve or smother issues that could divide or even ultimately destroy it like other African liberation parties.

The ANC cannot indulge any major internal dispute, however morally significant. From start to finish in the long drawn-out scandal of Nkandla, where President Zuma only finally surrendered in the constitutional court, the ANC dummied up and closed ranks as always in a crisis. It was not so much to save President Zuma; it was to keep the party intact.

Last week dummying up ended abruptly. Mr Mcebisi Jonas threw open the door by revealing the Guptas had offered him the finance ministry. And President Zuma’s last remaining shreds of credibility flew out of the window, as it became clear he was almost certainly guilty of putting the interests of business friends before his oath of office.

In case anyone was still in doubt about it, the Honourable Terror Lekota shouted out in the national assembly that President Zuma was no longer ‘honourable’ because of his conduct. His performance has featured on TV almost every day since.

The party is in a terrible dilemma. The leadership knows beyond doubt that what South Africa has is not a case of state capture, but of Zuma capture. It isn’t the first time. Schabir Shaik and his family captured Zuma; the ANC leadership had to manage his escape. But they ignored all objections, and arguably the law, to elect Zuma as party president and then to elect him again in parliament as state president.

Rank and file, parliamentary caucus, Cabinet, cronies and hangers-on are all trapped together in this and local elections are coming. President Zuma can only lend his face to these as a discredited leader, or not feature in them at all. Yet to replace him right now is as impossible as anything could be in politics.

The ANC leadership is falling back on the old stand-bys of shelving and smothering the issue. An exasperated ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told insistent journalists over the weekend that the party’s National Executive Committee was under ‘no pressure’ even to consider recalling President Zuma. It seems he is safe for now.

What could be the break point to change that? Only the coming elections.

If the ANC do well, or even just okay in them, President Zuma could serve out his full term, not because he has support to spare anymore, but because it is very difficult, not to say dangerous for the party to ‘recall’ a second president after the splits that followed former president Thabo Mbeki’s recall in 2008.

However a bad result, even without the ANC losing the major municipalities the opposition claim are up for grabs, would be fatal. An outright victory, a clear winner and loser, are not required for this. Elections are also measured by share of vote.

Mr Mantashe will be counting anxiously later this year, even if he can fall back on ‘low turnout’ as an excuse for any fall off in the party’s support. A low turnout is a favourite get-out for bad local election results.

Everything is where it should be to force change: in the hands of South African voters. Has their loyalty to the ANC been seriously dented at last? Has democracy been moving forwards underneath all these dramatic events, or does South Africa remain, dangerously, a party-state despite them?

  • Paul Whelan is a political analyst and freelance writer. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics in international history and politics.
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