The political year is under way. It is an especially important one for South Africa (as well as elsewhere), and it is delicately poised. For the ruling ANC, it is an especially fragile time: if the party fails to exit the Zuma era anything other than extremely carefully, it risks a fatal fracturing.
This is where the laws of physics and politics part company. When a big political entity such as the ANC starts to fall, Galileo’s theorem notwithstanding, it will tend to fall faster than a less weighty political creature.
The ANC is falling faster than we imagined and too speedily for it to see it itself or even comprehend what is happening.
But let us not run ahead of ourselves. What are the elements of such a decisive and, for many people, premature analytical outlook? And what have we learned from phase one of the “political season”?
The first thing is that President Jacob Zuma has been significantly contained and is probably appreciably weaker than he was at any point in the past 12 months.
Context is king and much has changed or is changing. A year ago, after the farce of “9/12” and Nenegate, it was assumed that Zuma had been wounded severely and would never be the same again. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was in the ascendant, evidenced by the fact that at least half of last year’s State of the Nation address was written by the treasury.
But Zuma fought back hard, rallying his loyalists on the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) and sailing relatively unscathed through the March 2016 NEC meeting and what should have been the devastating blow of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla at the end of that month.
But by November, he was back on the ropes, surprised and very nearly outflanked by the motion of no confidence that was tabled by Derek Hanekom at the last NEC meeting of the year.
In the end, no vote was taken. Both sides blinked. It was too close to call and there was far too much for both sides to lose: for Zuma and his cronies, defeat would have meant his instant recall from the presidency of both the ANC and the republic; for his detractors, defeat would have meant a fresh mandate for his rule and a strengthening of his power.
Now, that power is constrained. Zuma hides it well, of course. But the slip is also showing. The ANC’s traditional January 8 statement emphasised the importance of unity and a return to its core values. In turn, the ANC had put out a trailer for the State of the Nation address a few days before — a statement published on its website on February 5, in vigorous if contradictory terms.
Before the speech, my fear was that Zuma was about to join that fast-growing and menacing club of nationalist, populist and increasingly authoritarian political leaders around the world. But, in the event, he pulled his punches — or, rather, he was restrained from throwing them by a combination of two things.
First is the good sense that continues to prevail in some parts of his Cabinet — notably, of course, the treasury, but also departments such as economic development, both of which were required to come up with ideas to populate what the ANC and Zuma himself said would be a decisive articulation of so-called “radical economic transformation”.
Second is the fact that Zuma has so effectively asset-stripped the institutional capability of the presidency that even if he wanted to give expression to powerful ideas to rekindle his political fortunes and spark a political legacy that is anything other than one of toxic corruption and rank mediocrity, he does not have the wherewithal around him to do so.
Hence, at best, all his small, hapless group of advisers in the presidency can do is to cut and paste the various bits and bobs that come in from around his largely listless government (sometimes, amusingly, forgetting to correct the different typefaces in the process). The result was a patchwork quilt of dull-minded incoherence, with just one or two new initiatives thrown into the mix.
Mercifully, only a few of the cack-handed list of 12 “urgent tasks” that were listed by the ANC in its February 5 prelude to the State of the Nation address made it into the president’s speech.
The “plan” — too generous a word for it — was supposed to have emerged from the traditional end-of-January Cabinet lekgotla. But some of the points looked as if they had been composed in an Uber taxi on the way to the airport and jotted down on the back of a cigarette packet.
“Urgent task” number two, for example, reads as follows: “Invest money in township and rural communities and ensure we build post-apartheid cities in our rural areas and vibrant businesses in our townships.”
I can’t even begin to discern what this actually means. That the government wants to enhance “rural development” by building cities in the rural areas? What Monty-Pythonesque nonsense.
Perhaps it was drafted by the same eight-year-old who wrote Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, and who presumably was also responsible for “urgent task” number six: “Turn South Africa into a construction cite (sic).”
And so this is the second thing we can discern from the opening part of the political year: that the ANC (and the government) is so deeply divided that it cannot even muster sufficient unity of purpose to lurch to a more decisive and at least rhetorically coherent populism.
Ironically, that is a good thing for the country. We now don’t even have to wait for the budget speech on Wednesday to recognise that the moderate middle and the sensible left has sufficient power to hold the line against the desperate, self-serving and venal nationalists on the right.
Alas, the 12-point “plan” shows that the organisation has parted company with yet another of its most deeply held practices: that there was generally a serious analytical — didactic, even — backdrop to any new policy thinking.
Which brings one inevitably to the notion of “radical economic transformation”.
Near the start of his State of the Nation address, Zuma asked rhetorically: “What does it mean?” Now we know: it remains as intellectually puerile and ideologically vacuous an idea as when he first used it two years ago, without any warning or apparent forethought, but as a desperate response to the emergence after the 2014 elections of Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters.
Now, flesh was supposed to be added to the bone. But all that emerged were a few modest extensions to the black economic empowerment approach that has been around for 15 years or more, such as the proposed legislative attempt to increase black participation in the property practitioners’ sector.
Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel’s fingerprints could be seen on the only other remotely interesting part of the proposed government programme — the announcement that legislation would be presented to “de-concentrate” economic ownership.
Whether structural reform of the economy can be achieved by law is one thing. Another is that the market is more interested in other structural reforms, such as strike ballots and skills development, if it is to be inclined to invest in the South African economy.
But, putting these points aside, the proposal represents, at most, a deepening of the competition law approach that has yielded significant victories for the government — and it is perfectly sensible, because the competition authorities are one part of the institutional infrastructure that remains untouched by Zuptagate contamination.
The short point is this: neither Zuma nor his party has done anything to rock the boat or reclaim the political ground lost to their internal and external opponents. And nor have they done enough to defy political gravity nor arrest their downward political spiral.
Richard Calland’s latest book, Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next Thirty, is published by Penguin Random House