Who Rules South Africa? Negotiating the complex web of ANC politics – By Keith Somerville


Who Rules South Africa? - By Martin Plaut and Paul Holden

Martin Plaut and Paul Holden, Who Rules South Africa Jonathan ball, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2012.

Midrand and beyond

The ANC policy conference in Midrand at the end of June was a forerunner for what is to come at the national conference at Mangaung in December, at which the leadership of the movement (and effectively of the country) will be up for grabs. Few will forget the 2007 Polokwane national conference, where incumbent President Thabo Mbeki was ripped untimely from the leadership by supporters of Jacob Zuma, the current incumbent.  Political observers, ANC supporters or critics and politically engaged South Africans are awaiting Mangaung with all the anticipation of an Ali-Frazier bout.

But, as the Midrand policy conference demonstrated, the ANC big fight will be far more complex than a boxing bout. Also, as Midrand showed – with its fisticuffs and bottle throwing between factions – it will involve the audience as much as the participants, and far more shadowy forces in the ANC-led alliance, business and South Africa’s intelligence services.

Having banned the media from much of the Midrand conference, the ANC leadership tried to paper over the cracks, downplay the clear disagreements and ignore the movement’s inability to agree a coherent economic policy.  Zuma’s allegedly radical second transition was effectively dumped and turned into the second phase of a transition with fudged and vague policies on land, nationalisation of mines and other key economic areas.  The ANC spin doctors tried to pass off minor changes as having no relation to the growing struggle for leadership, which could see Zuma ejected as unceremoniously as Mbeki was, but with twice the residual bitterness.

At the end of the Midrand fiasco, ANC policy chief Jeff Radebe said to the media and movement members, “Let me just deal with this elephant in the room: There are no Jacob Zuma or Kgalema Motlanthe supporters – there are simply ANC supporters.” He went on to argue that the end of the second transition plan “has nothing to do with leadership. It is a political discussion; anybody saying otherwise is extremely mischievous. It is extremely mischievous for anyone to equate the second transition document with the second term for president.” But how can a political decision within the ANC be divorced from leadership?

Understanding Mangaung

At this point, if you want to understand what is going on and what will happen in December pick up Who Rules South Africa? Plaut and Holden’s book is the nearest thing  you will find to a guide and explanation of how and why the ANC functions as it does, who holds power, who gains from power and how the power-plays will develop.  The book is both a balance sheet of the ANC in office, of the uneven political, economic and social development of the country since apartheid and a forensic analysis of where South Africa is now and might be heading in the future; and why.

It is not comfortable reading – but then the role of journalists and writers should, as the American writer Finley Peter Dunne wrote, be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  This is made clear at the start of the book when the authors in their introduction say that “South Africa’s air of a well-governed liberal democracy is beguiling” – it exudes confidence and prosperity for tourists and business visitors, while its racism is no longer so overt that it troubles visitors.  Racism, however, still “plagues relations between its peoples,” whilst the governing elite mouths platitudes about equality and redistribution of wealth but seems little worried about the plight of the poor majority (ix).

The comfortable, who believe either that South African business and economic growth will go on as before regardless of politics, or ANC supporters blinded by hope and hankering for the mentally simpler days of “the struggle”, will be afflicted by the book. This is one reason it should be required reading for all who want to understand South Africa and the ANC today.

So who does rule South Africa?

From the start, the authors make plain that while they seek to provide an answer to the above question, it will not be a simple one which can be summed up in a few words or by supplying a few names. The answer will be complex and, in a way, open-ended given the shifting nature of the ANC in-fighting and the unstable nature of the alliance between the ANC, the Cosatu union movement and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Martin Plaut’s chapter – The Uneasy Alliance – perhaps the best in what is a book packed with quality analysis, looks at the wobbly alliance, its history, strengths, weaknesses and future. That future is uncertain, and while the alliance is the key centre of power, the functioning of the alliance and the power-bases within it are evolving constantly with growing signs of divergence between the ANC factions on one hand and Cosatu and the SACP on the other.

The extent of this divide can be seen in the warning which came from Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, that “a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas will increasingly control the state as a vehicle for self-enrichment,” if the ANC-led movement continues to act  in the way it has been (8).  It was, perhaps, an attempt to stop the public hearing the hysterical laughter and enraged snarling of the hyenas as they fought for the carcass of the ANC that led to the exclusion of the media from much of the Midrand conference.

One fascinating aspect of the way the Alliance has developed, from the long period of struggle against apartheid to the present, is that perceptions of power within it have changed.  During the liberation struggle, many observers perceived and sought through forensic research to establish that the ANC was dominated, its strategy developed and its actions dictated, by the SACP.  The extent that this was true remains unclear.  Now, it seems very clear that the role of the SACP and Cosatu is a minor and declining one when it comes to political power – highlighted by Martin Plaut – when he points out that alliance summits rarely happen now, to the irritation of the unions and the communists.

If the SACP tail did ever wag the ANC dog, then that tail has now been docked.  Similarly, the unions – always in a slightly uncomfortable relationship with the ANC (ever since the rise of Cosatu put the final nail in the coffin of the old ANC-SACP run SACTU) – are increasingly peripheral in decision-making. They can only try to exercise power through strikes, demonstrations and by exercising a veto over policies not seen as being in the workers’ interests.

It is impossible in a review to cover all aspects of this detailed and very timely book.  Its remit is wide, and it does not shirk the task of examining key events and relationships in great detail.  Holden’s chapters on the corrupt arms deal and the role of factionalism in the intelligence services over the Zuma-Mbeki fight (and Zuma’s current battle to stay in power) are very dense and take a lot of working through, but the task is worth it and the diligent reader will be rewarded with gleaming nuggets of information and insight. Plaut’s chapter on Helen Zille and the DA is also very important, as the DA has the potential – if it can reach out to a black constituency more effectively – to become a genuine political force.

I felt a sense of exhaustion after finishing the book – not because it was a slog to read, but because like completing a marathon, I had come out stronger on the other side. Stronger in being able to pick apart the complex web of relationships in modern South Africa, stronger in my understanding of the clever strategies of the Anglo-South African business community in retaining economic power through strategies to outflank Afrikaner and African nationalism, stronger in my grasp of why the more right-wing ANC Youth League and ANC factions want nationalization but the unions don’t (at this stage), and finally, stronger in my appreciation of how factionalism is likely to continue and sharpen both before and after Mangaung.   As I watch developments surrounding the December ANC conference, I will keep this book by me.

Keith Somerville teaches Humanitarian Communication at the University of Kent and runs the Africa – News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com).

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3 thoughts on “Who Rules South Africa? Negotiating the complex web of ANC politics – By Keith Somerville

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