Comment and Analysis

The bell tolls for political impetus

Richard Calland

Without introspection on former president Nelson Mandela's values, his recent death will merely serve to paper over the cracks.

Though there is sadness sweeping the country as this year comes to an end, there is also a palpable sense of a collective spirit uplifted. (Graphic: John McCann)

Nevermind the ratings agencies: when a government of as analytically dispassionate a disposition as Germany decides, as it has in recent months, to downgrade South Africa's political risk status from green to orange, then it is time for some serious reflection and action.

If only because, after the annus horribilis of 2012, things could only get better and 2013 was a year in which, almost imperceptibly, the first steps were taken to rebuild the social compact that was painstakingly constructed under president Nelson Mandela's watch during the mid-1990s and which has come apart with such disastrous consequences in recent years.

The August 2012 tragedy of Marikana was the most painful articulation of the breakdown not just of the social compact, but also of the ANC-Cosatu alliance's capacity to absorb socioeconomic pressures and pre-empt violent conflict. It was a watershed event of searing hurt that opened old wounds and caused new ones, and which depressed the public morale as much as it undermined international investor confidence.

Though there is sadness sweeping the country as this year comes to an end, there is also a palpable sense of a collective spirit uplifted.

The death of Nelson Mandela changes everything. And nothing.

On the one hand, he long ago left the public arena; his passing will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on policy. On the other, while he lived, South Africans could hang on to the dream that they could escape the pernicious legacy of the years before Mandela's election as the country's first democratically elected president in 1994.

Hence, the political significance of his final departure should not be underestimated. In the short term, the ANC will undoubtedly benefit: the celebration of the life of its most famous son will heal divisions and promote unity while evoking ­memories of happier days.

The spirit of the liberation movement and the heady, purposeful years of the transition to democracy will be exploited – for good and legitimate reasons – by the ANC's current leadership to segue seamlessly into an election campaign next year that will be further boosted by the celebration of 20 years of democracy.

This could make the difference between the ANC's vote remaining above 60% in next year's poll, rather than falling into the psychologically significant and angst-making 50s in an electoral marketplace becoming more competitive than ever – as shown, sadly, by an escalation in political violence that could well increase as election day approaches.

Whispers in the corridors of Luthuli House have suggested that an election result for the ruling party of more than 60%, achievable only on the back of an even greater share of the vote in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, could help to save Jacob Zuma's bacon, but that a result below that threshold figure would be a further nail in the beleaguered ANC president's political coffin.

In recent weeks, as the momentum of the Nkandla scandal has mounted, ANC traditionalists have begun to give expression to the idea that the "tide has turned" (against Zuma).

So the big question is whether the healing properties of mourning Mandela will be used, like an Elastoplast, to paper over the cracks – or whether it will be used to prompt serious introspection about the nature and character of ANC leadership, in which Mandela's principled commitment to the primacy of the Constitution, to progressive social values and to public accountability will stand in sharp contrast to the equivocation, conservatism and infelicities of the current incumbent.

In this respect, Thabo Mbeki's speech to the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg last Sunday was both evocative and noteworthy. Mandela's death automatically changes Mbeki's role and position. He is now the senior elder in the ANC, which obliges him to say and do things that hitherto he would have left to Mandela.

Whereas Mandela's frailty and incapacity prevented him from playing this role in recent years, Mbeki now faces no such constraints. The way in which he (re)inserts himself into the political space will be one of the most intriguing, and potentially significant, things to watch in the coming year.

Mbeki's interventions, such as last Sunday's, could create additional space for ­– great ironies notwithstanding – ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and other ANC traditionalists to take more decisive action to recover the ANC's progressive equilibrium and to restore principled leadership at the head of the movement.

All that now lies ahead. And so, back to this year: although it is possible to mount the argument, with supporting evidence, that industrial relations are adjusting to a new reality in which there is greater complexity because there are, for example, new unions in the mining sector to negotiate with (such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union), and that this year's strike season was considerably shorter and less violent than last year's, there were also further negatives to list on the political-risk ­balance sheet.

The item "Zuma" was already there. Nkandla just makes it worse.

Rather, the potential split in Cosatu is the most serious and dangerous development of this past political year. It is a game changer, the consequences of which we have yet to understand fully or digest.

For one, a united Cosatu was a powerful voice for the rights of workers. For another, its spongelike qualities, in alliance with the ANC, were a stabilising force. And under the astute and courageous leadership of Zwelinzima Vavi, there was always a progressive and principled alternative political perspective available to inform the national political discourse.

That the right wing of Cosatu, with the reckless and venal encouragement of the right wing of the ANC, has been able to neuter Vavi – while sowing the seeds for more division and rancour in the ranks of the union movement's leadership – indicates how the equilibrium point of South Africa's body politic has shifted in recent years.

During the Zuma years, the progressive consensus has evaporated, despite the left holding more positions in Cabinet.

At least Ramaphosa is acutely aware of the numerous perils that will attend the break-up of Cosatu, and is still trusted by a sufficient number of union leaders to be able to work with them to restore order. On his formidable to-do list, alongside "restore traditional ANC values" and "rebuild social compact", is "help Cosatu reunify".

Meanwhile, public protector Thuli Madonsela has held firm in the face of an intensified strategy by parts of the government to intimidate her in the performance of her constitutional duties. This has been another key political development of the past year – one in which, again, the contrast with Mandela's unquestioning respect for the independence of constitutional institutions, as well as Parliament, is revealing.

If the public protector is right, President Zuma lied to the National Assembly, a transgression of the highest order for which he should be called to account.

Nelson Mandela's universally exalted status gave lustre to a troubled, precarious nation, but he also set a standard against which all future political leaders can be judged. That is a vital part of his legacy, which Mbeki and other ANC leaders must sustain.

Now he has gone, South Africa is just another country and the ANC just another political party. And so, beyond the short-term benefits, the ANC's own "liberation dividend" will dissipate faster with Mandela's passing. Up to three million new "born-free" voters are about to enter the electoral marketplace and they have few, if any, memories of the struggle or Mandela's leadership. This is a "hinge" moment in South Africa's history. It enters uncharted territory.

Notwithstanding the sorrow, there is a poignant opportunity to reflect on the legacy of principled leadership that Mandela's life provides. Mandela's passing may tweak the calculus, but the political balance sheet at the end of 2013 remains delicately poised: the political futures of South Africa, the ANC and certainly Jacob Zuma, hang in the balance.

Richard Calland's new book, The Zuma Years: South Africa's ­Changing Face of Power, was ­published recently by Zebra Press

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