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Why South Africa should gird itself for tumultuous times

South Africa’s nuclear deal with Russia is part of the backdrop to the current crisis. Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky

South African President Jacob Zuma’s latest cabinet reshuffle in the Ministry of Finance is arguably the most controversial of all his executive decisions. It is the seventh cabinet reshuffle since he became president in 2009 and the third since 2014.

Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki only reshuffled their cabinets after general elections. The Zuma era, on the other hand, has been characterised by a high turnover, not only of cabinet members, but also senior public officials and executives in state-owned enterprises.

Zuma’s latest decisions - initially to remove Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene but then four days later to succumb to pressure and replace his new appointee David van Rooyen with Pravin Gordhan - has left everyone speculating as to the real reasons. Gordhan is a much more prudent appointment but a major political concession from Zuma.

What does it tell us about how decisions are being taken?

Some argue that it is indicative of Zuma’s uncontested power in the governing African National Congress (ANC); that he has developed an almost autocratic presidential style.

Another argument is that it is symptomatic of his predicament in the ANC. This line of thinking is informed by the fact that the ANC is weaker than it’s been since coming to power in 1994.

The ANC has been losing membership – more than 450,000 members on Zuma’s watch.

And a key player in the tripartite alliance, the trade union federation Cosatu, split earlier this year resulting in a drastic drop in membership. The split saw the metal workers’ union Numsa expelled over differences about the federation’s relationship with the ANC.

In addition, seasoned and senior party members have begun to voice their concerns about Zuma. Former president and ANC leader Kgalema Motlanthe’s recently made harsh criticism of his leadership. He also declared that the tripartite alliance was dead.

His comments followed those of another party stalwart, Rev Frank Chikane, who warned that the party faced the danger of losing future elections.

To add to Zuma’s woes, the contest for who takes over from him has begun. Current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has put his hat in the ring. And the trade union federation has implied it will support him as Zuma’s successor.


The growing factionalism in the ANC has left Zuma unsure who he can trust, even in his own province KwaZulu-Natal. The result has been signs of growing paranoia, particularly about possible critical or independent voices in the ANC. He considers all as threats to his position.

In the past, Zuma built a stronghold of support, through patronage, in the government’s security cluster – police, state security, military and prisons – which he staffed with his acolytes.

He did the same with the National Prosecuting Authority and some of the parastatals, using the appointments to secure support for himself.

The latest intervention against his minister of finance shows two things:

  • how far he is prepared to go to protect his supporters in state-owned enterprises who serve his self interests. Nene had taken a hard line against a disastrous financial decision taken by South African Airways chairperson Dudu Myeni, who is close to Zuma; and

  • how important state finances are to him as a tool to develop a personal style of diplomacy with leaders on the world stage. Here deal-making, whether for nuclear electricity or Chinese trade, is the key objective and source of pride for Zuma.

By applying a rational assessment of what the country could afford, Nene had become a “spoiler” for Zuma.

Zuma’s controversial statement that, in his eyes, the ANC comes before South Africa, set the tone. It is not unreasonable to extend this to mean that the ANC and the state provide him with a platform on which he can take decisions based on in his own interests, or those of his closest supporters.

Once a person believes that history is on his side he begins to believe that it legitimises his claim to the resources of the state. In Zuma’s case this became evident in his defence of the use of state resources to build his Nkandla homestead.

Any lack of co-operation by his ministers is regarded as opposition or even betrayal. Non-threatening ministers, such as the new finance minister, David van Rooyen and minerals minister Mosebenzi Zwane, are therefore logical choices.

The end is in sight

Zuma has lost control over who succeeds him as ANC president. This is evident from the fact that the union federation has passed a resolution backing Ramaphosa for the post. This has elevated someone who is outside the Zuma circle to the position of a real contender for power.

It means that the transition has already started and that Zuma could lose his hold on power by not having his favourite take charge.

A decline in ANC support in the local government elections next year will hasten that process. The ANC’s National Conference will follow in 2017, by which time it will be too late for him to turn the tide in his favour.

Ramaphosa’s increasing prominence will increase Zuma’s paranoia about who in his cabinet has already silently joined the Ramaphosa camp. A similar scenario unfolded ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. That resulted in Zuma ousting Mbeki as ANC president, culminating in Mbeki being recalled as president of the country.

Speculation is rife that more ministers are in Zuma’s firing line. These include Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe.

In effect, a silent rebellion is in the making. In the process most of the ANC’s internal democratic conventions, such as consultation, will be under pressure.

Nene’s dismissal heralds the beginning of a tumultuous period in the ANC.

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