South Africa’s critical moment

By Allister Sparks

Politically Incorrect Group

nbsp; Cape Town 1 October 2007

This is the most critical moment in the history of our young democracy. After 13 years of fantastic success, the new South Africa is facing its first real political power struggle to determine the future leadership of the country. Which makes it pertinent to note that the most dangerous moment for any newly liberated African country is not the actual moment of liberation, which usually goes off smoothly and even with a touch of euphoria, but the moment when the party of liberation and its ruling hierarchy first confront the possibility of defeat.

That is where we are right now. Yes, the succession struggle is being fought out within the ruling alliance, but it is a bitter factional power struggle for all that. The real political opposition in South Africa has always been within the ANC-led alliance rather than from the formal opposition in Parliament, which has been quite an effective watchdog opposition but never a realistic alternative government. Now that internal opposition within the ANC alliance is making its challenge for power, with all the attendant confusion and dangers that go with such a challenge.

What is more the confusion and dangers are magnified by the fact that we have an unpopular President and an unacceptable challenger with a set of potential corruption charges hanging over his head — all complicated by an archaic ANC tradition that prevents more acceptable candidates from making themselves publicly available.

This is the kind of unsatisfactory situation which in Africa in the past has led so often to a military coup. But that won’t happen here. We don’t have a military establishment capable of carrying out such an exercise. Or a military commander capable of leading it. Thank God for small weaknesses!

So what will happen?

Now I belong to the school of thought of that great American philosopher, Sam Goldwyn, who said: “It’s foolish to make predictions — especially about the future.”

Or as that wise old British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, put it: The trouble with politics is that “things happen.” Unexpected things that upset the finest analysis. Trigger events that change the course of history. Like 9/11. Or the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 — a man most ordinary folk in Europe knew little about in a city they cared little about, but which through a series of complex defence agreements triggered World War One which killed nearly a third of the young male population of Western Europe’s major countries and began a chain of events that reshaped the politics of the whole of the 20th Century and are still reverberating today — if you consider all that followed, from the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, to Hitler, to World War Two, the Cold War, the Holocaust, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the State of Israel and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.

So with that health warning, let me try at least to draw a projection of the political forces that are emerging in our society and where they may lead. The timing is likely to be determined by catalytic events, of which the Jacob Zuma saga has been the first. There may be more.

* * *

The first thing to note is that the miracle of our political transition from apartheid to nonracial democracy has been followed by an economic miracle. The South African economy is flying. We have just experienced the longest period of sustained economic growth in our entire history, which is now spilling over into a corporate and infrastructural boom as the country is having to expand its productive and infrastructural capacity to keep pace with that growth and prepare for the greatest international sporting event in the world — the Soccer World Cup.

So you see cranes and bulldozers everywhere, as we strive to expand our railways, seaports, airports, roads, hotels, energy generation capacity and just about everything else. I heard just the other day that Maria Ramos has ordered 400 new locomotives for Spoornet. Four hundred! That’s an incredible expectation of the increase in rail transportation requirements in the next handful of years.

But it’s important to note that this tremendous expansion of our economy has not taken place in isolation. It has been part of, and partly driven by, the phenomenon of globalisation.

Now globalisation is often misunderstood as an ideology, particularly by forces of the left. It is regarded as a synonym for economic neo-liberalism, which I prefer to call free market fundamentalism, and the so-called “Washington consensus.” But it is nothing of the sort. Globalisation is not an ideology. It’s a word coined to describe the reality of a new world of universal capitalism and instant communication, a world which can trade with itself anywhere and everywhere at the speed of light, a shrinking world of mobile capital and, increasingly, mobile labour as well.

As Alan Greenspan explained to a big Standard Band conference that I attended here in Cape Town last Thursday, the end of the Cold War was an extraordinary event that brought about one of the most dramatic transformations in world history. When the Berlin Wall came down it revealed a degree of economic devastation behind it that was far greater than anyone had expected.

The contrast between the shocking state of the eastern world that was revealed when the wall came down and the prosperity of Western Europe was so stark that almost overnight capitalism fully displaced central planning throughout the world — including the whole of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and virtually all the Third World countries

Huge capital inflows into these economically devastated economies followed, resulting in rapid GDP growth in all of them — double that of the developed countries — which in turn caused savings rates to surge and long-term interest rates to come down.

At the same time a billion and a half people moved from central planning into the expanded world of market economies, bringing the unit costs of labour down. Skilled labour moved from east to west and from south to north, while direct investment capital moved the other way as manufacturers took advantage of the cheaper labour in these newly developing countries.

Again these big changes are visible to the naked eye. Go into any finance house in the City of London or New York and you’ll meet bright young Hunganians and Bulgarians, Czechs and Poles and Serbs. Go into suburban homes and you’ll see domestic workers from the Phillipines and Bangladesh. There is a house in Bryanston near where I live where bright young black accountants are auditing the books of America Online, the internet company.

That is gobalisation. Labour is now nearly as mobile as capital, as both seek the best advantages they can find in this single global marketplace.

The combination of these huge movements, particularly the reduction of labour costs, brought down inflation as well as interest rates. The developing world has prospered as a result, including South Africa and indeed many other parts of Africa, aided by debt relief and a surging demand for resources. Angola had a 14,6% growth rate last year, Botswana 11%, Zambia and Mozambique, both basket cases a few years ago, are both heading for 7% this year. And South Africa, freed from the isolation of apartheid, is moving ever deeper into Africa to the advantage of both. Scores of listed SA companies have led a new Great Trek into the continental hinterland — such as Sasol, which has operations in 44 African countries, SAB Miller, Shoprite, Standard Bank and many more.

We are becoming to Africa what Hong Kong has been to China.

Just 12 years after The Economist wrote off Africa as “The Hopeless Continent” it has recorded its strongest growth in 30 years, the IMF is predicting an overall growth rate of 5% this year, and everywhere the new wealth is producing a burgeoning middle class.

Which brings me to the single most important development in South Africa: the rapid emergence of a black middle class. That has been the flywheel that has driven our economic growth. But it has also had important political consequences. For it has split the ANC’s constituency, its power base, and that is what is causing this huge leadership struggle.

It’s difficult to quantify the exact size of this new middle class. It’s hard even to define a middle class. But using a rough yardstick based on advertising industry surveys that are used to identify target markets, it’s a fair guesstimate that the black middle class expanded from a near standing start to about 5-million in the first 10 years of our democracy.

That is roughly equal to the size of our white population back then, indicating that the total middle class doubled in the first decade of democracy. Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, the veteran sociologist and demographer, estimated around that time that the black middle class would double again every three years if the economic growth rate remained the same — which it has.

With four more years gone, that suggests our overall middle-class must now be at least 20-million out of a population of 48-million.

These are rough estimates, but the point is that whatever the precise number it is the rapid growth of the multiracial middle-class that has produced this remarkable consumer-driven growth rate.

It also means that some 28-million fall outside that category. Which is what gives us a dual economy. What I likened in my last book, “Beyond the Miracle,” to a double-decker bus that had the affluent middle class riding in comfort on the upper deck, while the uneducated and unskilled were crowded together in the uncomfortable lower deck — and that the bus had no stairway between decks.

An analogy, I might add, that President Mbeki later “borrowed” (which I use as a gentler verb than “plagiarised”) by likening our economy to a double-storeyed house with no stairway.

But bus or house, the fact is we have a First World economy absorbing those with the education and skills to participate in it, and a Third World economy where the poorly educated and unskilled languish in a country which destroyed its peasantry with a cruel Land Act 95 years ago. So today they constitute a huge lumpen proletariat in squatter camps around our towns and cities.

The result is that, despite the abolition of apartheid, we have a widening gap between rich and poor and a stubborn unemployment level of around one-third of our working-age population.

Politically, it means a new class stratification of our society is overlaying the old racial stratification, and this is splitting the ANC’s constituency.

In the past all elements of the black community were easily able to work together in a united front because all were in the same boat. All were oppressed.

But no longer. The new class stratification means that interests are becoming divergent. Now there is a fault line running through the alliance — and indeed through all its component bodies as well, because all are split.

One binding factor remains. Power. That and the privilege and patronage that go with it. But for that, the alliance would already have split into its logical parts, a centre-left, middle-class party and a socialist workers party representing the underclass. The glue may hold for a while yet: no-one is eager to abandon the ticket to political power and all that goes with it.

Instead we are seeing a struggle for the soul of the ANC. But the atmosphere has already been so poisoned, with the acrimony around the Zuma-Mbeki conflict and the venom with which the two camps are attacking each other, that an eventual split is surely becoming inevitable. It won’t come before the ANC’s December conference, and probably not before the 2009 general election, but cracks as wide as this cannot be papered over indefinitely.


It’s a strange election year indeed. With only 77 days to go to Polokwane we don’t even know officially who the candidates will be, thanks to the arcane tradition that it is wrong to show ambition or seek election but rather wait to be “deployed.” We can speculate, of course, and certainly Mbeki and Zuma, even Tokyo Sexwale, are pretty obvious runners. But we don’t know for sure whether there may be some late compromise entries or not.

Which makes it all rather like the way the Catholic Church chooses a new Pope.

The millions of Catholics around the world, all of whom will be vitally affected by the outcome, have no vote. They don’t know who the candidates are. The Cardinals don’t declare themselves to be candidates, or even voice their ambitions. They certainly can’t campaign, at least not publicly. Then they all get locked up together in conclave out of sight and out of hearing in the Cistine Chapel while the world sits around outside watching for the colour of the smoke coming out of the chapel chimney.

So I guess all we can do is sit around trying to read the smoke signals emanating from Luthulu House.

What are those signals telling us?

First that Mbeki, who appeared to be well ahead a few months ago while Zuma’s campaign was flagging, has committed a series of blunders lately that have cost him dearly in popular support. The summary firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, his inexplicable defence of the incompetent and bad-tempered Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the bemusing muddle over Scorpions leader Vusi Pikoli and Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi while the President was away ringing the bell in the New York Stock Exchange and his official spokesman was incommunicado. All this causes public confusion and alarm and lends substance to the left-wing’s accusation that the president uses state institutions to demolish his critics and protect his allies.

Zuma, meanwhile, appears to have been re-energised by Mbeki’s blundering and is campaigning hard, building support not only in his home base of KwaZulu/Natal but in other provinces as well, including Limpopo where the conference will be held. His support appears to be growing and the auditing of membership figures reportedly indicates that he may have the edge when it comes to the votes of branch members, who will constitute 90% of the delegates at the conference.

However, Mbeki will still be president of the country for another year and a quarter, so he will still have the power to dispense jobs and other patronage, and everyone in the party knows that. He is a ruthless operator and they know that Siberia looms for anyone who crosses him.

The main factor, though, is whether or not Zuma will again be charged with corruption before the conference, which is scheduled for December 16 to 20. I understand the National Prosecuting Authority has a draft indictment ready, but it won’t charge Zuma before judgment is delivered in five cases before the Supreme Court of Appeals which will determine whether or not the NPA can have access to documents seized in raids on Zuma’s home and office and that of his former lawyer in August 2005, a diary of the former CEO of the French arms company Thint which is in Mauritius, and banking records involving Zuma in London.

Zuma’s lawyers have successfully stalled the NPA’s access to these documents by repeatedly appealing judgments that have gone against them. Having already been reprimanded and had the Zuma case struck off the court roll because it was asking for repeated adjournments while waiting for access to these documents, the NPA clearly doesn’t want to get into that situation again. If it charges Zuma again, it must be able to start the trial right away. Knowing this, Zuma’s tactics have been to use appeal after appeal to prevent the charges being brought against him before the Polokwane conference.

There can be no other explanation. If Zuma is indeed innocent, as he claims, then surely the logical thing for any politician wanting to become president of his country would be to have his day in court as quickly as possible to clear his name and have a clean run to the election with no cloud of suspicion hanging over him. This Zuma could have done at least a year ago.

Instead he has done his damndest to delay things by using the appeals to prevent the prosecution getting hold of those documents, which tells its own story about his protestations of innocence, since he obviously knows what the documents contain.

Clearly the tactic is to prevent the prosecution from being able to charge him before the conference. If Zuma succeeds he could well be elected president of the ANC with his supporters continuing to chant the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty,” after which it would require a brave head of the NPA to bring a charge of corruption — which carries a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years — against the heir presumptive to the presidential throne.

The pressure to drop the case would be enormous; the risks of pressing ahead with it forbidding. As the first head of the NPA, Bulelani Ngcuka, once remarked: “If you’re going to shoot the king, you’d better make sure you hit him.” Miss, and you’re dead meat yourself.

Conversely, if the Appeal Court judgments do come in time and if they are in favour of the prosecution, a new charge against Zuma will almost certainly be brought almost immediately, a trial date set and the whole succession picture will be changed.

For then the ANC heavyweights, the custodians of its traditions and its proud reputation as an old and responsible organisation, will have to consider whether it is prudent to go ahead with the election of a new president who is facing a charge of corruption carrying a long term of imprisonment.

I think they would not want to do that. They would surely want the trial to run its course and await its outcome before having to decide. The way out then would be to persuade the Polokwane delegates to agree that another, extraordinary conference be held in late 2008 to settle the leadership issue. Thabo Mbeki could remain president of the ANC until then. After all the ANC policy conference last June agreed that it was “preferable” for the president of the ANC and the president of the country to be one and the same person. That situation could remain for another year.

Given that scenario, I think it likely that other candidates would then come into the picture as front runners for what by then would really be the presidency of the country rather than just the party — the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale. Kgalema Motlanthe, Mosiuoa Lekota and maybe others. And by that time, after all the sturm und drang, I suspect there would be strong pressure for a consensus candidate.

In my view, then, the critical moment is when the Appeal Court judgments will be handed down. The courts have gone into recess as from today until November 1. That means they won’t be hearing any new cases through October, but they can hand down judgments. The Court of Appeal has a reputation for being quite prompt, and knowing the importance of these cases it will surely want to give them priority.

So I think there is a good chance we shall have those judgments before the end of this month. The question then is, if any or all of them go against Zuma, will he apply for leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court. My expectation is, yes. That has been his tactic all along. But if he does, will the Constitutional Court agree to hear it.

It will, I’m sure, want to give a prospective president of the country every chance to clear his name. On the other hand it has established the precedent that it will not review a case coming from the Appeal Court unless the essence of that court’s judgment involves a clear constitutional issue. And we will not be able even to speculate on that until we know the detail of the Appeal Court’s findings.

On such fine points of law, then, may the future of this country depend.

And what of that future? Would a Zuma presidency be a disaster? I don’t think so. I know Jake Zuma and he’s a warm and charming man. He’s not a crazy left-wing radical. He’s an African traditionalist. He has said publicly he won’t change present ANC policies, and he won over a group of delegates from the City Bank of New York with whom he spent two days last week and who thought he was great.

I think, too, that while he is not an intellectual heavyweight he is smart enough and has the great merit, which Mbeki does not, of knowing his own limitations. I think he would not try to be a hands-on president like Mbeki, but more collegiate like Nelson Mandela. He might even appoint an engine-room manager to run the show, as Mandela did with Mbeki, while he played the role of figurehead and glad-hander, meeting the people, waving to the crowds and dancing to his machine-gun song. It would not be a bad combination.

But he is a populist who has won the support of the left and made pledges to help the poor. That has its dangers. It is easy for a populist demagugue to mobilise such a constituency with simplistic slogans, but having done so they then can’t deliver on their promises. That leads to frustration and anger on the part of the aroused voters who feel betrayed, which in turn causes the now embattled demagogue to turn nasty, resorting to scapegoating and the jackboot to shore up his position.

That is the well-worn path to authoritarianism that revealed itself so often in the last century.

But my chief concern, which I have mentioned several times in recent columns, is that this succession struggle is all about personalities and who will have power and the patronage that goes with it. Whereas the real challenge before us is about how to drain our swamp of unemployment and despair and the dangers that go with that.

The hard truth is that, for all our great economic success, you can’t have a stable country if a third of your working-age population is unemployed and unhappy. That is what we have now and it will grow more dangerous with time if we don’t do something about it. And those solutions have to be found, not in the ideological thinking of the 19th Century but in the realities of the 21st — in the age of globalisation.

The question is what — not who.

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