/ 4 January 2019

Watershed political wars lie ahead

Tightrope walker: Cyril Ramaphosa won by a narrow margin at the ANC national conference at Nasrec
Tightrope walker: Cyril Ramaphosa won by a narrow margin at the ANC national conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg in December 2017, and still faces opposition from inside his own party.(Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The year 2018 was one of high political drama. There was the recall of former president Jacob Zuma and the unravelling of the state capture project by the Gupta family. Then there was the decision to make the first-ever amendment to the Bill of Rights to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

This year may prove to be just as dramatic, with a national and provincial election in May testing the support not only of the governing ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” but also that of the major opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The land reform process is expected to follow.

The election for seats in the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces and the provincial legislatures will be the first major test of public support for Ramaphosa’s leadership of the ANC and the country. His moves to clean up the state and the governing party have gained momentum and secured some success. But the work of the Zondo commission into state capture has exposed both the grubby nature of the ANC’s internal workings and the extent to which the entire party, and not just the Zuma faction, has been compromised by corruption.

The ANC took 62.15% of the vote in 2014 and is aiming once more for the magical two-thirds figure (66%), which it believes will allow it to amend the Constitution without needing any opposition party support to implement land reform. Having taken 53% of the vote in the 2016 local government elections — losing the Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane metropolitan councils to alliances of the DA, the EFF and the United Democratic Movement — the ANC may be hard-pressed to maintain its majority in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, let alone secure two-thirds of the vote.

The party’s electoral advances in KwaZulu-Natal during the Zuma years, in particular in the

eThekwini metro and in rural towns in the province, will also be tested in the May poll. The impact of the internal battles before and after the ANC national conference last December has been felt particularly hard in the province, which backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. Alhough the “unity” leadership elected in June is now in step with Ramaphosa, disaffected Zuma supporters in the Moses Mabhida region, where the provincial capital Pietermaritzburg lies, have boycotted pre-election processes and are threatening not to campaign for the party.

Analysts have predicted that the ANC may in fact lose its parliamentary majority and be forced into a coalition agreement with one or more opposition parties to be able to implement land reform and other economic transformation measures.

The DA faces its own set of challenges in the May poll. After taking 22% of the vote in 2014, the party will be focused on consolidating the progress it made in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng in the 2016 local government poll, as well as in the Western Cape. It is also aiming to make inroads in North West, where the fallout from the revelations of state capture resulted in the forced “early retirement” of Premier Supra Mahumapelo.

The DA will also be battling to limit the damage among its black and coloured voters caused by the acrimonious departure of former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, who has formed her own party, known as Good. De Lille eventually left the DA amid allegations of racism and manipulation of the party by a white cabal and counter-allegations of maladministration and corruption against her from the DA.

The DA’s coalition governments in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay have come under serious stress in the past year, because the breakdowns in its governance pose a potential threat to the gains it made among voters. 

The EFF has punched far above its weight in the National Assembly since it took 6.35% of the vote in 2014 and went on to win just over 8% of the vote at local government level in 2016. It continues to gain traction with new voters, making an excellent showing in the student representative councils on campuses around the country. Like the DA, the EFF faces questions about its performance in the local level coalitions, but the biggest potential threat to the EFF’s gains is the disclosure that the brother of its secretary general, Floyd Shivambu, benefited from the VBS Bank scandal and allegations that the party itself also benefited.

The emergence of new parties creates an additional challenge to the opposition. Though De Lille’s Good may threaten the DA, the newly launched Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, backed by the South African Federation of Trade Unions, may eat into the voter base of both the EFF and the ANC. The African Content Movement headed by axed SABC chief executive Hlaudi Motsoeneng has also registered to contest the election, but is unlikely to pose a threat to anything except our collective sanity.

The battles of 2019 won’t all be fought at the polls. On May 20, days after the elections, Zuma’s application for a permanent stay of prosecution on corruption and racketeering charges because of payments from his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and arms dealer Thales will be argued in the Pietermaritzburg high court. Zuma was charged again in February last year for 783 questionable payments, for which Shaik received a 15-year sentence. The charges against Zuma and Thint were withdrawn in 2009, but were reinstated after a lengthy court battle by the DA resulted in a judgment that the decision to dismiss the charges was irrational in law.

The three days of argument before KwaZulu-Natal deputy judge president Mjabuliseni Madondo will determine whether the case against Zuma and Thales, which the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) says it is ready to prosecute, goes ahead.

Zuma’s legal woes may not end there. The Zondo commission continues with its work in January and, as testimony about the role of Zuma and his allies in the ANC and government in state capture continues, so does the potential for eventual prosecution by the NPA. All indications are that the first prosecutions relating to state capture by new NPA head Shamila Batohi will focus on Eskom.

Ramaphosa’s R48-billion economic stimulus package will likely lead to a battle being fought in the bargaining chambers and in the streets between government and the ANC’s alliance partners once the process of cutting 30 00 public service jobs in a bid to slash government’s salary bill by R20-billion a year kicks off. Public sector unions have threatened war over the proposed cuts — which government has downplayed — but the trimming of the public sector is central not only to the package but also to the plan to reduce the size of Cabinet and merge ministries.

With legislation to allow expropriation of land without compensation in the offing after elections, a drawn-out court battle with AfriForum — and King Goodwill Zwelithini — is also likely before the process begins. Faced with immense internal and external pressure because of the land issue, Ramaphosa is left with no option but to ensure that the process, central to the ANC’s 2019 election campaign, does actually take place.

This article has been amended to reflect that a two-thirds majority is 66%.