Suppose, for the moment, that in the middle of 2014 the leadership of the ANC is looking at a strikingly poor showing in the late election. They have won, let us say, 57% nationally. In Gauteng they get, let us say, 55%. In the Northern Cape, 52%, alerting even the DA to the possibility that they might win if they put some effort into it. The mood in the National Executive Committee is glum. Even if outwardly optimistic, they know that unless they do something they will quite conceivably lose the next election and have to go into a coalition.
So what, if anything at all, will they do?
Even at this stage, the ANC does not really face disaster. An identical decline in the party’s fortunes in 2019 would force the party into coalition at national level and in several provinces, but the coalition could easily be with parties which were small enough to be easily controlled. More to the point, coalition with other parties would not mean coalition with parties of different ideological persuasions, since no such parties exist in Parliament at the moment. Therefore, danger is not immediate.
Zuma could not become President again in 2019 in any case without violating the Constitution, and while he might not shrink from that he would probably be prepared to retire – he will, after all, be very old and arguably no longer capable of serving his foreign corporate masters. The real issue, however, would be 2017. Would he want to keep control of the National Executive Committee by running for President of the ANC again, and thus – possibly – hold onto indirect control of the government? Above all else, Zuma needs to ensure that he does not face charges for his crimes; whatever he does in the intervening period to protect himself against such charges can always be undone by an unsympathetic government, as Silvio Berlusconi has discovered in Italy.
The trouble is that Cyril Ramaphosa is Deputy President of the ANC. It is possible that he would want to become President, simply because it is quite clear that the President of the party has more power than the President of the country. It is also likely that many of the big businesspeople who installed Ramaphosa at the Mangaung conference would prefer to see Ramaphosa in full control of the party. Of course, some of these big businesspeople would actually view Ramaphosa as a problem, because he is seen (in the business community, if nowhere else) as a competent person, and therefore one who would improve the image of the ANC – whereas of course they would ultimately like their party, the DA, to take power eventually. As a result, the Ramaphosa factor, which supposedly was going to protect Zuma against the perils of Kgalema Motlanthe, may place Zuma in danger in any case.
Another trouble is that once it becomes clear that Zuma’s regime is in any kind of trouble, all the forces of destabilization which Zuma employed against his former opponents are liable to be unleashed against him. For instance, Zuma will have no more guarantees of patronage once he ceases to be President of the country. As a result, it is possible that competing candidates for the party and for the nation will be able to argue that they should be supported because they can give people jobs whereas he cannot. This was a major factor weakening Mbeki’s control. Meanwhile, there will be people who will want to see Zuma fall merely because of what happened to Mbeki – and they may be stronger than Zuma realizes, if only because his inclination is to avoid things which he does not wish to think about.
Hence, there will be a terrifyingly wide variety of dangers for Zuma to face, which cannot be evaded or resolved by telling lies or bribing or bullying people. So what can be done?
One alternative would be to try to appeal directly to the people, to win public support for Zuma and try to use this against his gathering enemies. This would be an almost ideal answer, but it’s hard to believe that Zuma or his allies could do this. In order to appeal to the people, Zuma would have to establish public trust by taking action which would actually serve their interests – and that would mean that the people whom he currently serves would become distrustful of him. In other words, for Zuma or his allies to try to establish themselves with the people they would first have to endanger their current position. Which could not be tolerated by their supporters – it would be an invitation to massive conflict within the ANC.
A simpler alternative would be to carry on as before. Zuma’s recent decision to purge some potential opponents, such as Baloyi and Sexwale, and replace them with compliant stooges, shows the kind of behaviour which could be expected – reshuffles of people whose disappearance would not antagonize wealthy white people or foreigners, their replacement with nonentities increasingly dependent on Zuma or his allies. That might seem to be the royal road to peaceful dominance. The trouble is, however, that the people whom Zuma has purged over the past two or three years have all been people who seemed submissive nonentities or reliable stooges. After all, Mbeki once considered Zuma a submissive nonentity and a reliable stooge – whereas he eventually turned out to be a rebellious nonentity who wished to be a reliable stooge for someone else, a fact which Mbeki only recognized much too late. Therefore, carrying on as before will probably not prevent catastrophe. After all, the more purges you conduct, the more enemies you create and the more allies you make nervous.
But if Zuma actually cannot reform and cannot carry on as before, then there is very little for him to do. Perhaps he can strive to transform the system into one more controllable – but in a sense he has already done that in a way which only works provided that the majority are prepared to accept the system. If the majority rise up and defy Zuma, he will be in very serious trouble indeed, especially because the more he dominates the ANC’s political system, the more he discredits it and the more likely mass demonstrations against it are likely to win support from disgruntled, disenfranchised members, branches and regions – a problem which pervades the system at the moment.
The most likely response is a weak combination of all these things – unsuccessful attempts to win public support, unsuccessful attempts to bribe or bully allies into subservience, unsuccessful attempts to change the system into one less subject to control by others. The fact that all these attempts are likely to fail does not mean that Zuma will be defeated, but it does mean that any counter-attack against an almost inevitable challenge to Zuma’s authority (in the almost certain event of a substantial decline in ANC support) would have far less weight than the Polokwane stitch-up or the September 2008 purge of Mbeki’s supporters.
It would, however, have weight. One possibility might be that the first challenge to Zuma would fail – that it would fail to gain traction within the spineless National Executive Committee, or would fail to get any support from the provinces and the metropoles, so that even if the NEC were against Zuma, Zuma could appeal to a real or purported mass support base and attempt to overawe them. In which case, Zuma would be in a position to launch yet another purge, which he would be forced to go ahead with – but this would simply place him further out on a limb, with many of his supporters now facing the axe. Also, his supporters in the media and the big business community would undoubtedly begin to wobble, wondering if they were backing the right horse. Ultimately, the danger might then be that Zuma would be a weakened leader, one who was forced to pretend that he was strong, and to throw weight around which he actually did not possess.
However, if Zuma’s opponents succeed, what then? Then, presumably, there would be a lot of unhappy Zuma supporters around. Zuma would want to take revenge if he could, and equally presumably, forcing Zuma out would so disrupt the ANC as to make it difficult for members of the ANC to prevent him from doing them immense damage, either indirectly through Zuma supporters or directly through the immense amount of damaging information which Zuma possesses and can use against his opponents. After all, Zuma’s defeat would also mean the defeat of the security services who desperately want to retain their power and job security. There would be a lot of powerful people desiring either to see Zuma back in power, or else to see Zuma’s successors weakened.
Meanwhile, the people who had removed Zuma would not have done this because they particularly wanted to pursue a specific ideology which challenged his. Mostly, they would have removed him out of greed, desire for revenge, or fear that he and his allies might threaten them in some way. This is not a stable basis for building a coalition. There is actually no firm alternative to Zuma in the way that Zuma provided a spurious firm alternative to Mbeki. Hence, any post-Zuma administration within the ANC and within government would be extremely vulnerable – and would be conscious of this fact, meaning that it would be continually paranoid and self-justifying, and therefore eager to conceal its existing flaws as well as any new flaws which developed.
Thus, given the probability that the ANC will trip over its untied shoelaces in 2014, the likely consequence of this happening will be an intensification of the present problems of the ANC – weak and unpopular governance and a lack of coherent goals. This is rather unfortunate, because about that time (looking at watch) South Africa should be facing some really serious economic – and therefore, social – problems.