2015: The year the sands start shifting

The political antics of the coming months could set the tone for the next 20 years, writes Richard Calland.

One day next year, in May 2016, the ANC will wake up and discover that it has a majority in only one of the five metros in South Africa – Durban.

Cape Town, of course, was lost long ago. In Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, the party’s support will have been forced under 50% and it will be compelled to find coalition partners if it is to remain in power – a political exercise of compromise and negotiation with which it is almost entirely unfamiliar.

No progressive-minded constitutional democrat should find joy if this prediction is accurate, because how the ANC reacts to this moment will determine the political character and trajectory of the following 20 years. It also includes some very unpleasant scenarios, such as one in which the ANC lurches to the populist right and at its 2017 national conference opts for a more “muscular” successor to Jacob Zuma in a misguided attempt to out-Malema Malema.

So all that happens between now and then is an aperitif to the main event, though no less tasty for that. First up, there is next Thursday’s State of the Nation address, though it is preferable with this government to think of it as one half of a double act, with the budget speech a fortnight later on February 25.

With South Africa’s energy supply crunch at the forefront of everyone’s mind – those of investors, analysts, industrialists and ordinary citizens – it is tempting to say that the State of the Nation address needs to focus on three things: energy, energy and energy.

Like a magician, President Jacob Zuma may try to distract attention from the current crisis by pulling a (nuclear) rabbit out of a (Russian) hat. So far, the government has refused to provide adequate details of the framework agreement with Russian nuclear company Rosatom, giving rise to understandable suspicion in many quarters.

Indeed, government sources revealed towards the end of last year that the department of energy was told: “Just do the procurement; don’t worry about the rules – you will be given full political cover – and do it quickly.”

Even if the agreement proves to be a vendor-financed one, in which the Russians bear the upfront capital expenditure costs, South Africa will have to pay for it with a long-term sole electricity purchase agreement, which could lock the economy into a price that it simply can’t afford.

In other words, a nuclear deal, far from “solving” the long-term energy problem, could simply be a case of leaping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Hence, between Zuma and Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, they need to explain the nuclear power decision, the procurement process and the fiscal consequences, both short and long term.

Other important institutions of governance, such as the South African Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority, appear to be collateral damage in attempts by Zuma and his cronies to avoid accountability and justice, so a second primary question for 2015 is whether the treasury can hold the line.

These are strange times. As a treasury official wryly observed the other day: “We seem to be in the airline business now.”

The idea that the treasury can fix all the financial accountability and other bad corporate governance problems of many parastatals is unwise – not because the treasury doesn’t remain a bastion of institutional integrity, but because it is as unreasonable as it is inappropriate to believe that it can run the whole show.

The testing of Nene’s political strength is likely to continue well beyond the budget speech. In addition to the nuclear deal and the parastatals, he has a tricky budget to deliver, with tough choices between raising taxes (economically unwise), cutting social expenditure (politically impossible) and increasing borrowing (fiscally imprudent).

Something must give, otherwise the country is going to run out of money. So it is a huge year for Nene and the treasury.

In addition, the treasury will have a tough line to hold in the public sector wage negotiations. The “new” Cosatu will expect to get a solid return on the investment of its continued loyalty to a Zuma-led ANC. This will take the form of big wage increases the fiscus can’t afford.

The trade union federation is essentially dominated by public sector unions now that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa has been catapulted into an uncertain future, although it offers the glimmer of hope of a genuine socialist, left-of-centre alternative voice to replace the South African Communist Party, which by attaching its wheel to the Zuma wagon has lost all its intellectual and ideological credibility.

As Zuma’s power begins to slip away with every day that 2017 gets closer, a third big question is whether the broader ANC leadership can begin to arrest the declining institutional capability in state and constitutional bodies.

Related to this is a fourth question, of whether Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa can not only succeed in his attempts to stabilise the government but also build a strong political case within the ANC for why he should succeed Zuma, despite – or perhaps because of – what happens at the municipal polls next year.

This will not be straightforward. There are many people on both the left and the right of the ANC’s now unmanageably wide ideological span who would like to see Ramaphosa slip up.

Importantly, what is left of Cosatu – both the Zuma-aligned, Sdumo Dlamini-led faction and the remnants of the Zwelinzima Vavi crew who have remained on the deck of the fractured ship – is more or less backing Ramaphosa, as is big business. Ramaphosa has to retain the trust of both sectors as he leads a crucial multistakeholder process. That means asking those involved to consider changes to labour market regulation to provide an opportunity to rebuild both the corporatist approach that arguably served South Africa well in the 1990s and the collective bargaining stability that accompanied it. But this is set against the pain and peril of the broader socioeconomic context that Marikana exposed.

With the right leadership from all the represented sectors, this could forge a fresh consensus and vision for South Africa, cultivated by a negotiating process that permits the unions to trade one concession in one sector, or on one issue, for a gain from business in another and vice versa. For example, there should be an acceptance that the teachers’ unions must be held to account if public education is to improve in return for a better minimum wage arrangement.

As such, does it not provide Ramaphosa with an ideal, though treacherous, platform to make his case to be the next president and to launch the start of the “age of Cyril”?

Clues to how this plays out, as well as longer-term policy responses to the emerging electoral challenge the ruling party faces, will be provided at the ANC’s national general council in mid-year. Remember 2005? That was the start of the unravelling of Thabo Mbeki and the beginning of Zuma’s ascent to power.

Like the beleaguered state-owned airline, the ANC needs a turn-around strategy. Can it muster the willpower to shake itself from a wretched but inexorable decay? Inevitably, this in turn requires it to figure out how to deal with Julius Malema. The Economic Freedom Fighters have jolted a moribund Parliament into life in the wake of last year’s national election.

Although the ANC dealt with the threat posed by the Congress of the People after the 2009 elections without breaking a sweat, inexplicably it has failed to come up with a strategy to deal with the rumbustious red-overalled rebels. The ANC seems discombobulated, unable to come to terms with Malema’s political brand and bravado.

That many progressive-minded people are taking pleasure in the discomfiture caused by Malema’s aggressive political strategy is a telling sign of just how cross people are with the ANC. Instead of worrying about the impact of parliamentary “hooliganism” on the democratic process, former ANC members or sympathisers are more than willing to permit such concerns to be trumped by an overriding wish to see more political accountability.

Recently, I have witnessed many exchanges between former comrades that show ANC diehards are simply unable to understand why this is. Some are too arrogant to get it. Some are in denial. Some are too foolish or dishonest to care. Instead of reflecting honestly on the state of the party, they curse their old friends for having the audacity to refuse to condemn Malema.

Meanwhile, the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, faces its own dilemmas as it approaches its national conference later this year. Foremost will be the question of whether to bring the Helen Zille era to an end or to stick with a tough leader who has brought the party far but may have reached her limit.

This year may be only the overture to the more epic and potentially bloody political opera that will follow between 2016 and 2019, but it will lay many of the foundations for the main plot that will unfold thereafter.

Richard Calland is the director of the Democratic Governance Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town.