A new centre of power through mass mobilisation is needed in South Africa

Demands to recall South African President Jacob Zuma reached a climax at the governing ANC’s national executive meeting. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) has long argued that the elected president of the party should also be the executive head of the country to avoid creating two centres of power. Otherwise the centre of power in the party would inevitably be at odds with that of the president of the country.

But the idea that by taking this route it would avoid conflict has come to nought. Jacob Zuma is president of the party as well as the country. But the ANC and the government, the executive in particular, are at war.

Senior members of the national executive committee of the ANC tabled a motion for Zuma to step down, echoing similar calls by party stalwarts. It is now evident that South Africa has two centres of political power.

One can speculate as to who holds the reins within the ANC and is increasingly at odds with the presidency. What is clear is that all is not well in the party structures.

Because of this my contention is that South Africa needs a third centre of power. The country needs a mass democratic movement to confront the mismanagement that will otherwise beset it.

To an extent South Africa has been down this road before, to great effect. In the 1980s leaders such as Cheryl Carolus and Reverend Allan Boasak were instrumental in creating the United Democratic Front which rallied diverse people around a single purpose: co-ordinated mass action to oppose the apartheid regime. This time such a movement will need to focus on enhancing good governance to ensure socio-economic development.

This should draw together a host of players ranging from not-for-profit organisations to religious bodies and active citizens who want to save the country.

Business is powerful, but not organised

The business community has held a significant amount of sway over the direction the country has taken since democracy in 1994. At its core, the policy regime of the last two decades has been a de facto settlement by way of compromise between political elites and big capital.

Organised labour, through the guise of its alliance partnership with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, has served to cement this corporatist pact between the private and public sectors. So while the business sector remains an influential actor on the national scene, the lack of unity and coordinated effort by business has neutralised its capacity to steer the state.

The country’s business sector is led by two main bodies; Business Unity South Africa and Business Leadership South Africa.

Contending voices such as those of the Black Business Council and upstart Progressive Professionals Forum are eroding the voice of business. The latter groupings are breakaway factions of organised business who favour a more aggressive transformation agenda and stronger alignment with President Zuma’s administration.

This erosion is laid bare by the fact that business only mobilised and reacted once international markets had punished the president and the country after Nenegate. This was the scandalous expulsion of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015. Zuma’s appointment of a new finance minister has historically been handled with due care for the management of business confidence and perceptions, but BLSA and BUSA groupings were caught entirely unaware of the impending change.

Two centres, no progress

The implication of a split in the political centre of power is that South Africa’s national development project will be gridlocked. Except for a handful of localised multi-stakeholder projects, such as those driven by Premier David Makhura’s Gauteng government on a local level, very little will be achieved between the social partners of government, business and labour under these conditions.

It also means that these two centres will drive different agendas. The party will be steering towards immediate political imperatives such as securing votes in the 2019 national and provincial elections. On the other hand, the increasingly isolated, defensive and desperate executive is likely to close ranks and attempt to use the security cluster with increasing vigour as a weapon against its opponents.

New centre of power

What remains to be done by those who continue to hold a vision of a democratic, progressive and increasingly equitable society?

Their task is to construct from civil society a new centre of power – people power, citizen power, built on the power of just claims, energised by the power of righteous indignation. After all, the power of a society rests in its people and only then in its institutions.

South Africa again needs a mass democratic movement. The main actors in such a force for common good will inevitably have to include churches, mosques and temples. These civil society groups enjoy a shared representation of the vast majority of citizens, with around 81% of the population self-identifying as Christians, many of whom regularly participate in faith community practices. This force will also have to include trade unions and community organisations, NGOs and rights activists.

There are early signs of the emergence of just such a third force for good in the likes of the SaveSA movement, the Socio-Economic Future of South Africa convened by the Archbishop of Cape Town, and the public call to prayer for a change in national leadership by Reverend Moss Ntlha.

For a project of mass mobilisation to succeed, South Africans who have been deeply loyal to their liberation movement masters will have to take back their agency and right of refusal. ANC membership would need to become a choice and not a birthmark for privilege. Liberation credentials will again have to be hard earned. But this time liberation will mean holding one’s friends in high office and those in the boardrooms to account.

South Africa now has two centres of power. It needs a third if it is to navigate the polar risks of state capture and state incapacity and forge a path to inclusive prosperity. Is the country’s labour movement awake to this reality? If the clergy have come to this conviction, can the men, women and young people who do not benefit from the country’s system of patronage be mobilised to shoulder this task?

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