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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: South African Monitor by Heinrich Matthee.]

South Africa’s state security minister David Mahlobo has accused ratings agencies of forcing regime change after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the government’s credit rating to junk in the beginning of April 2017. His statement was reported by the state-controlled SA Broadcasting Corporation on 9 April.

Mahlobo’s statement reflected the increased prominence of securocrats and a non-democratic discourse in the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The downgrade by Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Ratings in April happened as a result of president Jacob Zuma reshuffling his cabinet and dismissing finance minister Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan was an opponent of Zuma’s gigantic nuclear energy deal with president Vladimir Putin of Russia. Zuma’s relatives and a close patron, the Gupta family, stand to profit from the deal involving the Russsian state-owned Rosatom.

Zuma justified Gordhan’s removal by referring to an intelligence report that the finance ministry was opposing the president and had “the support of many in the ANC and other parties to force the President out”. “By having them all stand together they are attending [sic] to show unity so that the UK and USA banks will join in with the South African banks Against [sic] the President.”

Mahlobo claimed that the credit downgrade was a sign that Western imperialists and colonisers are driving the prevailing political and economic climate in South Africa to gain access to minerals needed in the fourth industrial revolution. He said that when the ANC government joined BRICS it created enemies in the international community. The ANC like other African liberation movements was under attack. “They have made a decision that for them to use our continent of Africa, they need to weaken former liberation movements.”

Putin’s interest

The Putin govenment is closely following factional struggles around Zuma.  Relations between Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer, and Zuma, a former guerrilla intelligence commander trained in the former East Bloc, extend to both personal and national security interests. The United Russia party of president Vladimir Putin of Russia concluded a pact with the ANC in 2013. When Zuma believed he had been poisoned in August 2014, it was to Russia that he allegedly went to get medical treatment.

During the same period, news emerged of a mysterious, but major personal deal on a nuclear energy programme concluded in Russia between Presidents Putin and Zuma.  The nuclear energy deal was in contrast with energy and economic policies, including the NDP.  Major departments in South Africa were not involved in the opaque deal, reputed to be worth up to $100 billion.

Tens of intelligence officials of South Africa have received training in Russia in recent years. In September 2016, the deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), Anatoly Punchuk, confirmed that the FSVTS had for the first time proposed to South Africa to engage in joint industrial research in the defense sphere.

NGOs alarmed at securocrats

Different civil society organisations have questioned the increased role of securocrats in closing down the free flow of information and legitimate protest at major nepotism and corruption. “What distinguishes Zuma from Mbeki is the growth of the security cluster in policy making in government,” according to prof. Jane Duncan from the University of the Witwatersrand.

In March 2014, November 2015 and July 2016, the ANC government cooperated with Russia and China in the United Nations in watering down or voting against resolutions protecting the right of protest, defenders of human rights and the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet”.

Right to Know on 25 April 2017 questioned a suspicious burglary on Friday night, 21 April, at the well-protected Parliament Marks Building in Cape Town.  “We are particularly concerned that journalists’ computers were targeted in the break-in, suggesting the possibility that those behind the crime were after sensitive or personal information that is on the journalists’ computers,” R2K spokesperson Busi Mtabane said.

R2K said the incident has happened in the broader context of harassment of SABC workers, as well as unexplained break-ins at the offices of the Chief Justice, unionists, progressive academics and students associated with protest movements in past months. “In light of this, there is a very real possibility that the break-in at the SABC offices is part of a deliberate campaign aimed to intimidate and to interfere with the free flow of information.”

Mahlobo has also stated that State Security has a list of Pan African academics whose teachings are believed to be conditioning students into “Afro-pessimism”. Evaluating the ideological content of university curricula is presented as a matter of national security. State Security Agency (SSA) agents were allegedly deployed in and around parliament to help ensure that members of the ANC parliamentary caucus toe the party line during the debate and vote of no-confidence in President Zuma.

Factional intimidation and violence

Ratings agencies will send delegations to South Africa in coming months to assess the situation “on-the-ground”. The pervasive corruption and economic mismanagement under president Jacob Zuma are a major concern. However, other key political dynamics are also shaping the business environment in South Africa.

Under the rule of president Zuma, South Africa has moved from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime. The locus of politics is no longer parliament and elections, but a field of power where non-democratic and democratic elements interact. These elements also include an unaccountable presidentialism and weak democratic checks on the executive, while extending the ANC’s power in a one-partydominant state through state patronage and pro-ANC crony capitalists.

There have been twenty political assassinations in the local elections of 2016 alone, with ANC ministers opposed to Zuma receiving death threats in past months. Political competition over positions and resources, sometimes involving intimidation and violence, will intensify in the run-up to the ANC’s leadership succession in 2017 and the national elections in 2019.

Dr. Heinrich Matthee is a political analyst for companies and an Associate of the Africa Studies Centre, Leiden University.

Some references


South Africa at a Glance
59 620 000 (mid 2020 estimate)
3.2% y/y in July 2020 (CPI) & +1.9 y/y in July 2020 (PPI)
-51% q/q (2nd quarter of 2020)
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