🔒 Premium – RW Johnson: A case of DA getting what it asked for with new State of Disaster

By RW Johnson*

The Democratic Alliance has announced that it will shortly draw up its attitude to the possibility of a coalition government with the ANC. It is a most difficult subject. Some while ago, I cautioned against the strategy enunciated by Helen Zille for a DA-ANC coalition which seemed to me to rest on some very wishful assumptions. For it seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that the ANC is far more likely to negotiate an alliance with the EFF.

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Indeed, that process seems to have already begun, and it is now strongly encouraged by the Russians. This is of a considerable moment for the ANC. Not only are they ideologically in thrall to Putin (above left), but a good deal of their income comes from Chancellor House’s 22% share in Viktor Vekselberg’s manganese mine. And Patrice Motsepe, Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law (and one of the ANC’s chief donors), is in partnership with Norilsk Nickel. Both Norilsk and Vekselberg are close to Putin.

Putin and Xi Jinping will be in South Africa for the BRICS summit in August, and doubtless, the ANC will fawn upon them. South Africa’s alliance with Russia is of considerable utility to Putin and he will doubtless impress upon Ramaphosa that any coalition with the DA (which Putin sees as a catspaw of US imperialism) would endanger that alliance. In addition, Russia is highly likely to do whatever it can to assist the ANC in the 2024 election.

Helen Zille, as is her wont, took my article questioning her strategy as a personal attack and blew her top. In fact I had made no criticism of her: I was interested only in her strategy. So – as is my wont – I made no reply. But in any case, shortly thereafter she dropped her new strategy, saying (rightly) that she couldn’t trust the ANC. But of course, the problem won’t go away.

Meanwhile we have had a strange pantomime. For almost a whole year the DA has argued forcefully for the declaration of a State of Disaster. In April 2022 their shadow minister for public enterprises, Ghaleb Cachalia declared that “The DA demands that the situation at Eskom is dealt with urgently by way of the declaration of a State of Disaster”. (This was after load-shedding had been ramped up from Stage 2 to Stage 4 – which, by today’s standards seems very mild stuff.) Mr Cachalia would not have made such a statement without the agreement of the party leadership, so this clearly settled DA policy.

In May 2022, the DA staged a special press conference at which Mr Cachalia repeated his call for a State of Disaster to be declared on “Eskom and the electricity sector,” though he was at pains to distinguish this from a State of Emergency and to demand that the SOD should be “ring-fenced across the electricity value chain.”

By November 2022 Mr Cachalia was again re-iterating his call for a SOD, saying that “The longer government takes to declare disaster around Eskom, the closer the country will get to a total grid collapse.” Reinforcing the point, Alan Winde, the DA premier of the Western Cape, wrote to Ramaphosa, Eskom and several Ministers, asking for a State of Disaster to be declared, saying that otherwise, the electricity crisis could not be properly addressed.

All of which seemed clear enough. However, the ANC finally picked up this idea, decided they liked it and sure enough, in his State of the Nation address Ramaphosa declared a State of Disaster and even decided to create a Minister of Electricity. This has a wonderfully Victorian ring to it and rather reminds one of how when the partnership between Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin fell apart, Bulganin was exiled to the most footling post Khruschev could think of – Minister for Electric Power Stations. To be fair, though, there was never a hint of power cuts.

In fact our Minister of Electricity will be one of no less than five different ministers all involved in Eskom affairs, a classic case of too many cooks who are bound to spoil the broth. Already the turf wars have begun with Gwede Mantashe declaring that the new Minister for Electricity will be a mere “project manager”. However, in a classic demonstration of “beware of getting what you wanted,” the DA seemed anything but pleased that the ANC had at last done what the DA had repeatedly asked for. Indeed, the DA denounced the State of Disaster, said it was a terrible idea, and is even going to court to try to stop it. John Steenhuisen says that the SOD is dangerous and that “Our country simply cannot survive another round of the looting and irrationality,” which characterised the last State of Disaster (over Covid-19).

All of this without the least word from the DA to explain why it has so dramatically changed its mind. And so quickly: as far as one can see, the party changed its mind the instant that the ANC came round to its point of view. Some say this is all you can expect of a party with two leaders, but surely there must be a better explanation? Perhaps I am missing something? I looked at the DA’s website, but no clues there.

This is extraordinarily giddy behaviour. One is reminded of the way a toddler bangs around inside a playpen, making increasingly strident demands – until someone gives him what he wants, whereupon his rage is redoubled for the truth is that he is too tired to know what he wants and is now just in a general bad temper.

It is alarming that the official Opposition can behave like this. It is now nearing the most important decision it has ever had to take – whether or not to go for a coalition with the ANC – and one would like to think that it will approach such decisions in a sober and level-headed fashion. The problem about a coalition is that, on the one hand, it is likely to be disastrous for the DA as a junior partner of the ANC, with no one with any ministerial experience and facing a hostile or useless civil service. On the other hand, the DA’s voters and donors will be horrified at the thought of Malema’s thugs and looters in government and will demand that the DA does whatever it can to block that possibility.

Before we get to that, though, we will have a State of Disaster with, apparently, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma again in charge and with multiple different ministers, the Eskom board and the new Eskom CEO all running about trying to find an instant fix for a problem which originated in 1998 and which has produced power cuts for sixteen years now. It is most unlikely that this State of Disaster is going to be popular with the public. Corruption scandals are likely, continuing power cuts are certain and Lord knows what NDZ will come up with. But if anyone complains the ANC will say “we’re only doing what the DA asked for”. It’s not ideal for an election run-up. How on earth could it happen?

*RW Johnson, former Oxford Don, is South Africa’s leading political analyst.

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