OPINION: The battle continues

Norman McFarlane

William Mervin Gumede’s 2005 book, Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC, exposed in sordid detail, the vicious internecine battles in the party’s leadership and in the security apparatus, that emerged during his presidency.

The indignity of the shattering defeat delivered by a triumphal Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference two years later – Mr Mbeki had attempted the unthinkable; securing the ANC presidency for a third term to rule from behind the throne of his nemesis – meant that he had lost the battle. The soul of the ANC was firmly in the hands of the populist faction so skilfully crafted by Mr Zuma, despite Mr Mbeki’s near herculean efforts to keep him at bay.

Mr Zuma’s victory was complete when he gleefully pushed Mr Mbeki onto his sword in 2008, ironically succeeding where Mr Mbeki had failed: effectively ruling from behind the throne.

The calamitous nine-year kleptocratic Zuma presidency ended in much the same way as did that of his predecessor, when a quietly vengeful Cyril Ramaphosa forced Mr Zuma onto his sword in February last year, and hope was reborn.

Mr Ramaphosa’s earlier rise to power at the 2017 Nasrec elective conference, did, in many respects, mirror that of Mr Zuma in 2007, but that victory was hardly complete or overwhelming. The razor-thin majority by which Mr Ramaphosa bested his opponent in the race for the ANC presidency – Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma – made it quite clear the so-called Zuma populist faction in the party retained significant traction.

The recent spat over the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) exposes once more the titanic ideological battle for the soul of the ANC, that endures to this day.

The post-cabinet lekgotla press briefing, during which ANC secretary general, Ace Magashule, inarticulately spelled out a broadening of the mandate of the SARB “beyond price stability to include growth and employment”, was the first bomb-drop, and although it was refuted by Finance Minister (and ex-SARB governor), Tito Mboweni, and (somewhat belatedly) by Mr Ramaphosa, the rand tanked.

Mr Magashule inadvertently exposed the Achilles heel of the populist faction, when he opined in the press conference that “you don’t need to change the Constitution to do this”, thereby invoking the ghost of the June 2017 report of public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, in which she recommended remedial action which required a constitutional amendment to change the bank’s mandate to “ensure the socio-economic well-being of citizens and to achieve socio-economic transformation”.

That report was taken on judicial review and although it was set aside, including on appeal, it emerged that Ms Mkhwebane had colluded with then president, Jacob Zuma, to change the bank’s mandate, according to court papers filed by the SARB in September 2017.

This judicial slap-down has done little to deter the indefatigable Ms Mkhwebane, who is facing a string of judicial reviews, most recently, of her reports into the Financial Services Board, and the long-running Gordhan/Pillay SARS pension payout matter.

But it is the latter report, which drags out of the ditch a long-dead horse, the bones of which have been picked over by the likes of the Hawks, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Prosecuting Authority, all of which found there was nothing to prosecute.

The timing of the release of her report has also been questioned, coming as it did just before Mr Ramaphosa announced his new cabinet. Can it really be coincidental that it fingered afresh Pravin Gordhan, at a time when the ANC integrity commission was calling to account 23 people on the ANC’s election list in a wimpish attempt to give effect to another Nasrec resolution: to eradicate corruption and run a squeaky-clean administration? That Ms Mkwhebane is a relic of the Zuma administration suggests otherwise.

Mr Zuma has also weighed in on this particular battle, tossing a grenade of his own, by reiterating the resolution taken at Nasrec to amend the SARB’s mandate to include “other objectives such as employment creation and economic growth” without “sacrificing price stability”, which would align the bank’s monetary policy regime with “the objectives of the second phase of transition”. And it is that last phrase which so clearly identifies from whence emerges the seeds of the current conflict: the populist rhetoric of the radical economic transformation (RET) forces that still hold a considerable measure of power within the ANC.

The victories and defeats of the forces contesting the ANC’s civil war – for that is what is being waged within the party – is reminiscent of the futility of the ground-war during the Vietnam conflict, whereby countless lives were lost on both sides, each time a nameless hill changed hands after a titanic battle, only to be surrendered to the other side in a later engagement.

The battlefield is littered with the corpses of those deployed in the war for the soul of the ANC, and there are no clear indications which side is likely to triumph.

Despite the eventual withdrawal of American forces, the fall of Saigon, the surrender of the South Vietnamese administration, and the triumph of North Vietnamese forces, there were no winners in that conflict. Both sides, to this day, still suffer the after-effects of that pointless war.

What hope is there that this war will have a different outcome?