Defiance and decline

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

For a country in search of new heroes, as the old ones bid farewell, erstwhile South African finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, is an unlikely candidate. But a hero he has become. In planned rallies this week and later on, birthed by the memorial turned rally in honour of recently demised anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada over the weekend, he would be a keynote speaker. Activism is in the air. The object? Jacob Zuma, the South African president. Mr Gordhan had long been a stone in President Zuma’s shoe. Mr Zuma finally got rid of him last week, despite intense pressure not to do so. The passing on of Mr Kathrada was certainly a complication that likely caused Mr Zuma some anguish. There could not have been a worse time to remove an African National Congress (ANC) stalwart of Indian descent. Needless to say, South Africans of that ilk feel a certain level of disgust about the Indian protagonists of “State Capture” – the use of the state for private interests – believed to be goading Mr Zuma on this perilous path. Infamously known as “The Guptas”, they have been a source of hurt to the pride of South Africans of Indian and Pakistani descent who glory in the heroism of the likes of Mr Kathrada. Mr Gordhan’s audacity is welcome relief.

But the masses are scandalously fickle. And politicians are a treacherous lot. So even as Mr Zuma’s recent actions have rallied his antagonists across party lines, from elements in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – the other two members of the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC – to the ultranationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and still white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA), he could still pull a rabbit out of the hat. Still, his decline has never been more palpable: disaffected members of the ANC have been denouncing Mr Zuma publicly. Would they hold the line though? Because even as they all worry that Mr Zuma and his acolytes may become financially reckless in the absence of a bulwark against profligacy like Mr Gordhan, most of them also identify with Mr Zuma’s belated economic radicalism. It is also why the wily politician should not be written off too quickly.

With the nation’s coffers now fully under his control – new finance minister Malusi Gigaba is one to obey orders, Mr Zuma has within his gift some quick populist wins. And truth be told, pot-bellied and comfortable ANC cadres in the cities may gripe to the high heavens about Mr Zuma all they want, he is still very popular in the hinterland. With the colour of his cabinet now almost totally changed – more than a dozen ministers and deputies were dismissed at the recent reshuffle – he now has at his disposal a sharp instrument to deploy to his means. It may not be long before counter-protests against bourgeois elements and so-called “white monopoly capital” become the narrative of Mr Zuma’s fightback.

Fists raised
Mr Zuma’s traducers have called for the umpteenth confidence vote in parliament. In furtherance of this, the DA and EFF have asked for a special sitting of parliament, which ordinarily should reconvene in early May. National Assembly Speaker, Baleka Mbete, who also doubles as the national chairperson of the ANC, promised during the weekend to give it her utmost consideration. Could this be the final whistle on Mr Zuma’s presidency? Time will tell. Still, noteworthy in the recent reshuffle was the absence of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s – erstwhile African Union Commission chairperson and Mr Zuma’s ex-wife and preferred choice to replace him – name. It would not be farfetched to think that perhaps it has been reasoned she’d be better placed in the deputy presidency. To do this, Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent and the other frontrunner to replace Mr Zuma, would need to resign. Mr Ramaphosa had to debunk rumours he had resigned over the weekend. This is not likely to be the end of the matter. Should a vote of no confidence proceed and Mr Zuma emerges victorious again, it is highly unlikely he would keep his ex-wife idle for too long thereafter. A public revolt by ANC cadres that now includes Mr Ramaphosa waters the ground for a potential counter-assault by Mr Zuma should he survive this most recent attempt to remove him. In fact, things could get so odious thereafter that Mr Ramaphosa might see resigning as the only way to ensure he remains an attractive candidate.

Collective punishment
Market participants have started punishing Mr Zuma and indeed all South Africans in earnest. The rand plummeted about 5 percent on the news of Mr Gordhan’s firing, but regained some ground thereafter. Bonds and bank stocks moved in tandem, with the latter index falling almost 6 percent. Rating agencies have already started hinting downgrades to junk status may be imminent. Unfortunately, these troubles likely suit Mr Zuma’s grand scheme quite well.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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