Zuma’s removal was a masterstroke: can it be repeated for the economy?

Negotiation was key to convincing Jacob Zuma to step down as South Africa’s president. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

The removal of South African president Jacob Zuma will be remembered for several reasons. One may be the gap between reality and what reporters, commentators and those who shape the national debate say happened.

There have been two South Africas over this period – one created by the echo chamber which dominates the public debate and the other in which millions live. There is no sign that this gap will narrow soon and so what South Africans read and hear will not be what most people experience.

This is a problem for the economy because business decisions which influence people’s ability to meet their needs may be taken on the strength of messages which are believed not because they are true but because they are the only story told.

The echo chamber insisted that a weak and vacillating ANC leadership allowed Zuma, a president widely rejected by citizens (the ANC’s vote share has declined by more than 20% under his watch), to dictate how and when he should go. It did this by trying to negotiate his departure rather than simply telling him to go.

This ignores the constitution and the real world of ANC politics.

On the first score, South Africa is a constitutional democracy, not a one party state. Presidents are chosen and removed by a Parliament elected by the people, not a committee of the governing party.

The ANC can ask a president to go but if the incumbent says no, only Parliament can force them. South Africa’s Parliament begins sitting in the second week of February; until then, the ANC could not remove Zuma. He was gone little more than a week after his removal by Parliament became possible.

If a company did something major which needed doing in little over a week, it would be hailed as a model of efficiency.

On the second, Zuma would not have been removed by the ANC unless those who wanted him out negotiated with him. Negotiation was essential because it was the only way in which to build enough support within the ANC to force him to go.

A point which seems lost on the echo chamber is that the ANC is deeply divided: two factions compete for power. One has supported Zuma avidly, the other wanted him gone. The new leadership was divided almost equally between them – those who wanted Zuma gone may have enjoyed no more than a two-vote majority in the ANC’s national executive committee, which runs it between conferences. A divided organisation which fires a president by a two-vote majority will face years of trouble and so Zuma could not go unless a much bigger majority was built on the national executive committee.

Factors that made things difficult

Two factors made this more difficult. Many in the ANC remember President Thabo Mbeki’s removal in 2008 as a traumatic event: it prompted a split and began the ANC’s slide at the polls. Even some who opposed Zuma may have baulked at treating him in the same way as Mbeki.

The ANC also spent decades being harassed by the apartheid government. This produced a tendency to stick together in the face of outside threats and to settle disputes internally. Using Parliament to throw out its own president does not fit well with this. Some national executive committee members who did not support Zuma may not have wanted Parliament to remove him.

So those who wanted Zuma out could not simply pass a resolution and be done with him. They needed a national executive committee majority so big that Zuma would be taking on not a faction but most ANC leaders. They could rely on some support from members who switched sides in the hope of gaining positions after Zuma went. But far more was needed.

Negotiation was the key. It impressed waverers by showing reluctance to repeat the Mbeki trauma. More important, Zuma’s opponents may have realised that he was likely to negotiate in a way that would alienate support. They presumably expected him to put himself before the ANC and the country: the more he did this, the more support would grow in the national executive committee for his removal and the more his options would narrow.

So it proved. Within the ANC, negotiation strengthened the anti-Zuma faction’s claim to care about the organisation. It revealed Zuma as a leader who cared far more for himself than the ANC. By the end, some of his most committed supporters were begging him to go.

There is nothing weak or vacillating about this. The faction which wanted Zuma gone read their options accurately and did what they needed to achieve their goal. They have also achieved changes –- a commission of inquiry into state capture, a board for the power utility Eskom which is widely agreed to want to run the company, not loot it, and police action against people accused of abusing public money, which few expected to happen this soon.

Hints of how the country will be governed

Why is this important for the country and the economy? The politicians who removed Zuma are likely to be running the government for the next five years. Current events were their first test and so they give a hint of how South Africa may be governed.

The echo chamber says they show that government will be weak and incompetent. The evidence tells a different story.

This does not mean that South Africans now know that government will do what needs to be done to restore the economy to health and improve living standards. Current events do raise a crucial question about the new ANC leadership’s approach to the economy, but it is not the one which exercises the echo chamber. The question is not whether it can work out what is needed and get it done – it has shown that it can. It’s what it thinks is needed and what it is willing to get done.

The new leadership has shown great interest in the insider agenda – tackling the threats to the market economy which worry those who shape the debate. This means restoring the economy to the state it was in before Zuma: ensuring that government and markets operate as the rules say they should.

That is essential. But far more is needed. Unless the new leadership tackles economic exclusion, the problems South Africans associate with Zuma will remain. The key question is whether the new leadership believes that negotiating ways to include millions more in the economic mainstream is worth the same effort as removing Zuma – and whether they are up to this more difficult but more important task.

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