Is this South Africa’s moment of reckoning?

Tapiwa Gomo

SOUTH Africa is gradually approaching shaky ground. The adhesive that kept things together is slowly melting due to the emerging political heat or it has just out-lived its time. Tough choices will need to be made sooner than later to cushion the economy from political vagaries.

The rise of Cyril Ramaphosa to become President of South Africa, following the resignation of Jacob Zuma, was celebrated by the markets as having opened a new lease of life. He is their favourite and his rise was supposed to usher Mr Zuma to the annals of history, but that does not seem to be the case.

Recently, at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of State capture, Mr Zuma came guns blazing. He alleged conspiracies aimed at curtailing his rise to power and infiltration of the African National Congress (ANC) by yet to be named spy organisations linked to the Apartheid system.

It is easy to dismiss Zuma’s claims, but he is the guy the ANC trusted with the important portfolio of intelligence during the war of liberation. Part of his conspiracy is that the spy organisations from the Apartheid era suspect that Zuma knows their plans to infiltrate the ANC leadership. He further alleges that the infiltration is a well calculated plan to implant within the ANC leadership a leader who will protect and serve the interests of the Apartheid system. His claims suggest that the ANC is either or will soon be hijacked if this plan materialises.

These claims have sent shivers within the ruling ANC and there must be paranoia within its ranks.

The discussion has gained traction with the opposition. Whether by coincidence or related to the same matter, there is also a palpable uncertainty among the major stakeholders in the markets. When we thought all was settled with Zuma’s ouster and with the Guptas kicked out of the country, the South Africa situation seems headed towards turbulent times.

Just last week, Johann Rupert, South Africa’s second-richest person in the country — just behind Nicky Oppenheimer — predicted an uprising triggered by poor economic performance. He sees an Arab-Spring type of riots in South Africa. Rupert may have been frugal on his real source of fears in his analysis of the situation because the centre is fasting losing its grip on the control of South African politics.

Maybe let’s look back and glean for what might be the underlying causes of the uprising. Before the Democratic South Africa (Codesa) meetings in 1990, the South African oligarchies — those who owned the major industries in South Africa — had conjured a long term plan that would allow the hand over political power to the black majority, while retaining political and economic control in the hands of the minority.

They did this by co-opting the ANC leadership by parcelling out shares from companies that were specifically created to ring-fence the oligarchies with black ownership. This outer wall of black owners was designed to be their first line of defence or protection should nationalisation of the economy occur. They also drafted the Black Economic Empowerment policy and portrayed it as a gesture of their commitment to economic redistribution. In addition, they identified ways of ensuring that the cost of living was affordable for the majority and to keep the labour movement in check. All these were designed to keep the black majority happy and to remain on the sidelines of the economy.

To cement the historical imbalances and to legitimise this grand plan, they ensured that the protection of property rights and guarantee of social and civil rights were the cornerstones of the new and celebrated South Africa’s constitution. They had the media and the civil society organisations to sing praise — for a few coins of course. At political level, the goal was simple; to demonstrate their willingness to share, but on their own terms. How generous. With those in place and the crowning of Nelson Mandela as a global icon after his release from 27 years of imprisonment created a perfect comfort zone which is now seemingly and gradually under political threat.

Where are things falling apart? While Ramaphosa chimes with the markets, he lacks the clout and appeal needed to hold his party and the country together and this is sending the oligarchies into panic mode. Some people think he sold out by associating himself with the markets. There are also simmering questions that it was partly under his watch that the ANC support base plummeted from 62% to 57% in the last elections.

President Ramaphosa’s position on the land issue and employment creation — hot issues in the country at the moment — has lacked confidence-building clarity among the majority and this is what is generating fears in people such as Rupert and the rest. The opposition, mainly the Economic Freedom Fighters, will surely pounce on these as a hiatus to unleash the economic redistribution agenda. A huge crowd will be back them.

If the drama unfolds as predicted by Rupert, what are the options? Perhaps the choice is between preserving the status of the current economy, while seeking ways to make it more inclusive or to allow politics to restructure it the same precarious route taken by most-post independence African countries. Only time will tell.

 Tapiwa Gomo writes in his personal capacity