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Richard Calland: Not much has shuffled in the political pack

Pandemics are political. Yet, on the surface at least, South Africa’s politics appears largely unaffected. The internal factional warfare within the ANC remains the most important political contestation in town.

A second-rate car salesman of a political gangster, Ace Magashule, continues to hold the ruling party to ransom and thereby undermine confidence in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to execute his reform programme and lead the post-Covid rebuild.  

Plus ça change.

When almost a year’s worth of postponed municipal by-elections were held on “Super Wednesday” a couple of weeks back, the opposition fared poorly: whereas the DA lost several seats, the EFF — despite contesting all 45 by-elections, and despite the grim socioeconomic landscape — won not a single one.

It was the ANC which gained the most on the night. The more things change the more they stay the same.

But wait. The storm is coming. Boosted temporarily by the sugar rush of short-term economic stimulus packages, the global economy is on the edge of a precipice. The real negative effects of Covid-19 are still to come in many places. And debt is mounting dangerously.

Responding to this crisis is acutely delicate. One false move and the whole thing will come tumbling down.

The most precarious piece in South Africa’s own game of political Jenga is the public sector wage bill. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s whole fiscal consolidation strategy hinges on it. Fail to pull it off and there will be complete collapse: South Africa will be thrown into the arms of the International Monetary Fund and/or it will be unable to pay social welfare payments and hunger and starvation will spread across the land.

Treasury had already shown its hand in February, when the pre-Covid budget revealed that a drastic cut in public sector wages was the pivotal strategy.

Instinctively, and understandably, the market response was incredulous. Few analysts thought that the strategy could be executed effectively. Since then, the combined effect of the revised budget in June, and the medium-term budget policy statement in October, has been to double-down on the strategy.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has ratcheted up the stakes. There is even less revenue coming in, while the needs of the country have increased — the same excruciating dichotomy that faces governments across the world.

The government has handled things clumsily. The February budget decision was announced without any meaningful prior consultation with the public sector unions. Litigation followed, with the unions claiming a breach of the public sector wage bargain. On Wednesday, the matter was due before the labour appeal court — and as a sign of the government’s cack-handedness, the court was faced by a last-minute request for an adjournment to permit negotiations with the unions to begin. This was opposed by the unions which believe that they are standing on thick legal ice and have little to gain from any such negotiations.

It is a fascinating case both legally and politically. And a great deal depends on its outcome. If the unions win, treasury will presumably be compelled to go back to the drawing board and find another way to crawl back towards some kind of fiscal equilibrium point.

But what part of the national budget can possibly be cut that will not do immeasurable social and, later, political harm?

The public service and administration minister, Senzo Mchunu, is in the hot seat, as much as Mboweni. He has not played a blinder. Ramaphosa may be forced to move him aside — something he will be reluctant to do, as Mchunu is a significant ally in KwaZulu-Natal — or step in himself to deploy his famous mediation skills.

The problem is that there is little or no room for compromise. Unless the government is able to pull a rabbit out of the hat with an entirely different game plan for managing the budget, the public sector wage bill does have to be reduced substantially.

Unless it is willing to accept the argument of some economists that cutting public sector jobs will do more harm than good since these workers’ salaries are critical to keeping the economy moving, and risk a sovereign debt crisis, the government has no room for manoeuvre.

The damage to relations with Cosatu, to all intents and purposes a public sector union federation these days, is deep. If it loses the case, it may well resort to widespread strike action at a time when the government and the country needs its frontline healthcare and other public sector workers to continue to serve during the national state of disaster.

Moreover, the ANC may not be able to count on Cosatu’s boots-on-the-ground support in next year’s elections — although judging by “Super Wednesday”, and given the ineptness of the opposition, this may not matter much.

What is potentially more dangerous for Ramaphosa is the knock-on effect on his chances of a second term. As many as three-quarters of the delegates who turn up at ANC conferences are public sector employees, usually from the lower to middle management ranks of the public service where there is the greatest “fat” and where, therefore, the deepest cuts are likely to be made if the government is not stopped in its tracks by the labour appeal court.

If you are Ramaphosa you really don’t want to upset those people. Which does, unfortunately, take us back to Magashule and his disreputable and ragged bunch of fellow travellers. The recently-arrested secretary general of the ANC does not enjoy much support within the ANC let alone within the country, as the pathetic rent-a-crowd outside the Bloemfontein courthouse revealed.

But he punches above his true political weight by virtue of the position he holds in Luthuli House, where he can manipulate internal organisational processes and sustain the grand strategy of gerrymandering the ANC’s branches and internal electoral democracy that was devised by DD Mabuza in Mpumalanga and then executed by Magashule in the Free State and by Supra Mahumapelo in the North West.

This so-called “premier league” has been disbanded as a result of Mabuza’s coldly calculated jump to Ramaphosa’s side at the ANC’s last national elective conference in December 2017 at Nasrec, but its dastardly legacy lives on.

The next elective conference will be held at the end of 2022 and is now looming on the horizon. Those two years will hurtle by. And again thanks to the coronavirus, a mid-term marker — the ANC’s national general council (NGC) — will take place the year before, in April 2021, having been postponed from July this year.

The fightback faction will no doubt attempt to make a stand there — via the branch delegations that they organise. The premier league is no more, but the thing to watch will be Mabuza and his new political buddy, Paul Mashatile, a key player in Gauteng ANC politics and the organisation’s treasurer general.

It will serve their joint ambition well for the national general council  to be an unsettlingly disjointed event, sending mixed signals rather than unifying, and thereby subtly or not so subtly undermining Ramaphosa’s political authority, creating space for a more concerted assault on his hold on power in 2022.

As usual, Ramaphosa has failed to nip these rebellions in the bud. On several previous occasions he has failed to recognise the moments when the force was with him — first, in early 2018 after his victory at Nasrec — although he probably considered that ousting Zuma from the presidency was enough.

The second was after the election last year, whose outcome he could rightly have claimed as his own victory having arrested the steady electoral decline of the ANC over the previous four national and municipal elections. But, he did not move against his opponents, exercising excessive caution and, in the case of Magashule, preferring to let the criminal justice system do its job.

That time has come. Magashule is facing criminal charges, but predictably is refusing to respect the ANC’s national executive committee decision at the end of August to “step aside” from positions in the government or the party. Straight out of the Zuma playbook, Magashule and the fightback faction are resisting on the basis of the inexactitude of the legal letter of the “law” rather than it’s clear spirit.

This weekend, the party’s national executive committee will assemble for its last meeting of the year and must decide whether, and how, to execute its own decision in this regard. It is yet another big moment for the party and its president and, therefore, for the country. Hence, a political stocktake at the end of a tumultuous year suggests that despite the pandemic and the painful socioeconomic crisis the country faces, it is internal ANC machinations that continue to matter most.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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