The Softest Underbelly.

As we enter 2012, one of the key goals of the political elite is to persuade us that Jacob Zuma is, simultaneously, under threat at Mangaung, and invincible to all threats at Mangaung.

This apparent contradiction is easily resolved. On one hand, the ruling class needs to frighten Jacob Zuma’s supporters into turning out to support him, meaning that a threat needs to be acknowledged. On the other hand, Jacob Zuma’s supporters are weakly motivated, meaning that they need reassurance that such a threat can be easily overcome. All this indicates that Zuma is in an unstable position in his control of the ANC. The media is mistaken; Zuma can be beaten, if anyone wants to do so.

Does anyone want to? It seems evident that Zuma has made some enemies in his decade-long career of double-crossing and cheating, although many of these enemies are in too weak a position to act against him. The fact that these specific enemies are weak, however, does not mean that they have no power — for their resentment might lead them to work through agents, and at provincial level Zuma has less passionate, but nevertheless real, enemies who might be prepared to act as such agents.

Zuma’s power lies in patronage. He can promise jobs, and he can promise money through his web of links with big business and government. Therefore, he can bribe anybody who is willing to be bribed, and that means that he has been able to surround himself with corruptible people.

In such a system, however, there are enormous flaws. If your allies are mercenaries, you are constantly in danger that they may change allegiances. Furthermore, there are limits to Zuma’s capacity to pay bribes. Obviously government contracts are potentially in his hands, but most of those contracts are doled out through provincial ministries, or, less often, through national ministries. It is difficult to fire someone simply because they have practiced corruption in the wrong way. Therefore, the national and provincial ministers have to be under Zuma’s control, which suggests an explanation for Zuma’s very frequent reshuffles of the national Cabinet, and his continual meddling in provincial governments. Centrally taking over the management of a provincial ministry, as nobody has dared to say, gives central power direct control of the patronage arising out of that ministry, and this is surely what happened inLimpopo.

And inLimpopoit failed; the man who had his patronage taken away from him was still re-elected. If that is the case there, might it happen elsewhere? Might the whole apparatus of provincial patronage spin out of control? This is surely the reason why some of the most corrupt people in Zuma’s entourage, especially those who are resolutely opposed to democratic values like the SACP’s henchmen and the helots of COSATU, have called for the abolition of provinces. Centralised jobsworths ahoy! Once there is no longer an alternative, once all contracts are dictated from Luthuli House, is it not possible that the resistance to Zuma will crumble?

However, big business also wants its cut. Zuma cannot dictate to big business, because it provides him with most of his authority and wealth. Therefore, although a certain proportion of contracts may be doled out to Zuma’s friends, the cream must go to corporations. Where those corporations clash, Zuma and his friends are in trouble, because they have no control over the corporations and no capacity to mediate between them. The corporations also do not wholly trust Zuma, and therefore wish to have their own people in government who have business behind them — Sexwale, Manuel, Motlanthe and the rest. These people may clash with Zuma cautiously, even though the general ruling-class propaganda line is, of course, “All power to the Dear Leader”. These people are also politicians who wish to build power-bases, and while Zuma may play them off against each other, they have their own agendas, and most of them are more intelligent and astute than Zuma; their ultimate fear is not of Zuma, but of each other, which is why Zuma is still in power.

Unfortunately, too, there are more patrons than there are jobs or contracts. Also, most of these patrons do not wish to have to work; they want sinecures. However, someone has to run the system so that the jobsworths can benefit from it. This further restricts the number of jobs or contracts available — and where the jobsworths seize on jobs or contracts which actually need to be handled by competent and diligent people, the system breaks down. (Therefore the small towns have very incompetent municipalities because there the jobsworths have the most power and Zuma and his cronies have little control — but as the small towns have gone, the big towns are going.) As the system gets weaker, the amount of cream to skim off dwindles.

As a result, patronage becomes unstable. Some have to be removed because their bad performance embarrasses their patrons, and this breeds disgruntlement — “I was loyal, why was I sacked just because I was incompetent?”, which is a mirror to the earlier “I was competent, why was I sacked just because I was disloyal?”. Others hope to take their place, but do not do so because others have priority. “Why was I not given that job?” More disgruntlement. In a corrupt system, instability has a habit of breaking out, and this probably explains why provincial and municipal meetings so often end in violent clashes between the haves and the have-nots, the ins and the outs. And, of course, those who have not, and those who are out, are in an excellent position to appeal to the general public and proclaim that they will provide what their competitors cannot. Those in power are in a bad position to appeal to the public, because the promises which they make are speedily and conspicuously proved untrue, and particularly at municipal level, the public becomes easily annoyed at a lack of the provision of the basic services needed to sustain their daily lives.

To prevent this from becoming too dangerous, the Zuma administration periodically reshuffles posts, or arrives at the scene of an especially egregious scene of systemic failure to disclaim all responsibility, place the blame on the local beneficiaries of Zuma patronage (they used to blame the Mbeki administration, but this has become dangerous, partly because everybody is now aware that the situation was much healthier then) and make empty promises of resolving the problem, preferably in front of TV cameras or corrupt journalists who will report this back to a public which is increasingly unimpressed by such things.

It isn’t working very well, and so the corrupt system is becoming ever more unstable. Zuma has run heedlessly along a downhill path which unexpectedly turned into a narrow gangplank and looks increasingly like becoming a tightrope over the abyss. Unfortunately he is moving too fast to stop, and if he slows down he will lose momentum and fall, so he must carry on with what he is doing. Mercifully he spends most of his time either out of the country or relaxing at his fortified country estate in Nkandla, where he can simply ignore the increasing crisis which threatens to wreck his administration.

None of this guarantees that Zuma will lose at Mangaung. It is only a year away, and at the moment the mutterings of opposition have only led to a few direct challenges. At the present there is no sign that any of Zuma’s immediate underlings wish to take over the job of rope-dancer-in-chief. However, everybody knows that this corrupt opposition is there and if it becomes sufficiently powerful and vocal, one or more of Zuma’s underlings may decide to take advantage of it, even if only to ensure that if the system collapses they are not themselves buried under the ruins. Also, of course, the irresponsible businessmen who put Zuma in power are easily frightened, and if they choose to demand that someone like Sexwale challenges Zuma in order to safeguard their investments, they might find themselves in a position to shatter the system by accident.

Meanwhile, what about the principled opposition? Obviously, it is invisible. The ruling class has no interest in promoting principle or integrity in the ANC or anywhere else (the DA’s hilarious appeals to principle and integrity are purely intended to appeal to the crude ignorance and blindness of the white middle-class community). Therefore the media is not interested in acknowledging its existence in the Tripartite Alliance (what the media calls integrity is, of course, subservience to the interests of multinational capital). However, there are undoubtedly people out there in the ANC who are unhappy.

Some are unhappy for personal reasons, because they have been passed over for promotion or appointment while talentless hacks get preferment. Some are unhappy because they retain respect for the organisation and do not like to see elections rigged so that fools attain offices which they proceed to abuse to the detriment of the party, or simply do not like to see that detriment, that lack of democracy and administrative effectiveness, going on. Some would like to keep their jobs and are afraid that if the ANC fragments they will lose them, and anybody within the ANC can see that the processes that Zuma has set in motion will ultimately wreck it. Some can remember the ideals of the anti-apartheid era and the early days of government. Some are displeased by the incessant right-wing propaganda in the media which so often is couched in terms which simultaneously praise Zuma and his hacks (to which the name of Mandela is usually attached like the luggage-van of an old passenger train) while attacking everything good that the ANC has done, and everybody competent who has served the ANC, since its unbanning. Some just feel that, even if they believe Zuma’s lies at Polokwane, now that those lies are proved untrue it is time to look round for someone who might have a shred of honesty somewhere. These are all solid emotional and logical bases for a groundswell against Zuma and his allies, and none of this is going away.

So actually Mangaung might be a difficult time for the Zumatics. This does not mean that Zuma will be defeated. Nor does it mean that a Zuma defeat would entail a return to the good old days, let alone a step beyond the 1990s into a more democratic and socialistic system. The forces of corruption are strong and well organised, and they might simply be able to gain power through rigging the votes, packing the conferences and stampeding the delegates. However, the probability is that they are not going to have things all their own way at branch and provincial level. The more instability we see there, the more danger there is for Zuma, and the greater the likelihood that Zuma, his henchmen or his backers will do something extraordinarily stupid.

Which, after all, is what they do best.



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