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South Africa’s National Congress Vulnerable for the First Time

17 Feb 2016
By Professor Theunis Roux
President Jacob Zuma at the State of the Nation address on the 11th of February, 2016. Photo source: Government ZA (Flickr). Creative Commons.

With approval ratings at an all-time low, Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address on 11 February was met with opposition. This raises questions about the prospects for South Africa’s future governance.

Jesus might be coming sooner than the African National Congress (ANC) anticipated. Certainly, South Africa’s long-dominant political party, which likes to claim that it will rule until this blessed event, looks rattled.

Delivering the State of the Nation address to a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament on 11 February, President Jacob Zuma tried to appear dignified. Relentlessly heckled by the red-overall-wearing members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, his apparent strategy was to talk softly until they were shamed into silence.

It didn’t work. Photographs of the event show a tired President wishing that the ordeal would pass. The National Assembly Speaker, the usually fearsome Baleka Mbete, repeatedly called for order, to no avail. With perfect timing, the EFF chose its moment and ‘toyi-toyi-ed’ (war-danced) out of the chamber.

The contrast with the previous year, when the EFF’s members were forcibly evicted, could not have been starker. Much has happened in South Africa over the last 12 months, not much of it favourable to the ANC.

The standout disaster, as a self-inflicted injury, was the 9 December 2015 firing of respected Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene. The markets took the decision badly, to say the least, with the South African currency plummeting to below 15 Rand to the US Dollar.

While it is not uncommon for presidents to fire finance ministers, it does not typically happen when they are competent. Particularly not when they give sound advice, as Nene did in suggesting to Zuma that now was not the time for South Africa to be running up trillions of dollars of debt to finance a nuclear power programme.

The decision to fire Nene was compounded by Zuma’s appointment of Desmond van Rooyen, an unknown former municipal mayor, to succeed him. After a public outcry, Zuma backed down and re-appointed Nene’s predecessor, Pravin Gordhan. Three Finance Ministers in a single week does not reflect favourably on him.

Backing down was also a feature of the second major disaster for Zuma: his undertaking on 9 February, two days before the State of the Nation address, to repay a “reasonable” portion of the public funds spent on a security upgrade at his private homestead, Nkandla. The undertaking came in the face of constitutional litigation brought by the EFF and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

The EFF and DA argued that President Zuma and the National Assembly were in breach of their constitutional duties by failing to comply with the remedial action set out by the Public Protector in the March 2014 report on Nkandla. The report found that public funds spent on a cattle kraal, chicken run, swimming pool, a visitors centre and amphitheatre were not security-related and thus had to be repaid.

After initially using its majority in the National Assembly to dismiss the report, Zuma’s 9 February undertaking to repay the funds represents a massive blow, not just to the ANC’s integrity, but also to its air of invincibility as a party.

In August this year, South Africa will hold municipal elections in all nine provinces. With widespread dissatisfaction at the quality of service delivery, on which the EFF in particular has been able to capitalise, the ANC looks vulnerable for the first time. In addition, Zuma’s low popularity rating now appears to be an additional electoral liability. Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) metropolitan municipalities are all in the opposition’s sights.

The ANC accordingly stands before a tough choice: stick with Zuma as the lynchpin of its electoral campaign, and run the risk that he will take the party down with him, or remove Zuma, and run the risk of looking scared.

Either way, South Africa has reached a critical juncture in its post-independence history. As was the case in Zimbabwe in 2000, the party of national liberation faces a credible electoral alternative.

The EFF, unlike the DA, cannot be tarred with the brush of wanting to protect middle-class privileges. Its supporters are mostly black, poor and very angry. They are the masses that the ANC has always claimed to represent, but from whom its corrupt and self-satisfied leadership now appears alienated.

Will the ANC, as ZANU-PF did in Zimbabwe, seek to undermine public institutions in a bid to ensure its survival? Or will it respect the independence of these institutions and eventually, if it comes to that, the will of the people?

So far, the signs are positive. In the face of extreme pressure, both the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court have held firm. Moreover the ANC, while not above threatening statements and ‘cadre’ appointments, has thus far not come anywhere close to ZANU-PF’s blatant vote-rigging and violent intimidation.

If wise heads in the party prevail, the Second Coming will be peaceful, and the ANC will be able to add “respecter of democracy” to its long list of other achievements.

Dr Theunis Roux is a Professor of Law and an Associate Dean (Research) at the University of New South Wales. He was also a founding director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law. This article may be republished under a Creative Commons Licence.