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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Anthony Butler.]

The renewed assault on Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has President Jacob Zuma’s fingerprints all over it. Given that the creation of an investigative unit inside the South African Revenue Service does not, under any existing law, constitute a criminal offence, and given that the failure of the Hawks to specify the nature of the crime for which the finance minister is supposedly being investigated, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are witnessing a ham-fisted attack on Gordhan’s reputation.

At first sight, this move might suggest that Zuma’s hold on power is intensifying. In reality, it almost certainly signifies the opposite. Zuma has clearly been pondering a Cabinet reshuffle for some time, to oust Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and other South African Communist Party-(SACP-)aligned leaders. The SACP has come out against a Zuma-anointed successor to the ANC presidency.

Zuma’s original plan was presumably to use probable ratings agency downgrades at the end of 2016 to justify Gordhan’s removal. Now, however, he seems to be in a hurry. This signals desperation rather than control: he knows he is becoming a lame duck.

Zuma has avoided lame duck status so far by generating uncertainty. Many ANC activists have believed he might stay on for a third term as ANC president. From Luthuli House, he could oversee the installation of AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as SA’s president. Alternatively, he could step aside graciously in December 2017 and facilitate his former wife’s more immediate rise to the ANC presidency.

The credibility of these scenarios has nose-dived since the local elections. Although Zuma remains in control of the ANC national executive committee, he has caused electoral damage that extends beyond urban areas to the poorer provinces in which he was once considered an electoral asset. This means there is now virtually no possibility that his stay in Luthuli House will be extended beyond the end of 2017.

Dlamini-Zuma, already a scarcely credible candidate, has lost the little name appeal she once possessed. Even the ANC Women’s League has started scratching around for an alternative. The succession game is opening up. The prospects of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize have been somewhat enhanced. But given the attractions of reintegrating the EFF after the 2019 elections, fresh candidates acceptable to it, such as Gauteng’s Paul Mashatile, may also be in the running.

For the president’s cronies, by contrast, the future suddenly looks bleak. Lacklustre securocrats, Umkhonto we Sizwe chefs, former babysitters and assorted female admirers today form part of the national elite. They will go to the back of the patronage queue in a world in which Zuma’s influence has gone. Even the “premier league” looks vulnerable to fragmentation, because these party barons must now try to cut individual deals with fluid national factions in a post-Dlamini-Zuma landscape. Four factors, exemplified in the nuclear procurement process but generalised across the state, now hamper Zuma’s ability to secure compliance:

• He is confronted by the stalling capacity of a bureaucracy that knows he will soon be gone;

• He does not inspire loyalty, has no project and no principles, and has stabbed innumerable erstwhile allies in the back;

• He has been self-serving. Hopes and expectations invested in a Franco-Chinese nuclear deal will be dashed if Zuma secures agreement with the Russians. This latter deal will benefit a much narrower constituency;

• A lame duck can no longer guarantee protection for the politicians and officials who agree to do his dirty work. They now face political retribution — and criminal prosecution — in what is quickly becoming a post-Zuma world.


Anthony Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in May 2019 (CPI) & +6.4 y/y in May 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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