African Arguments by Keith Somerville

Martin Plaut and Paul Holden, Who Rules South Africa Jonathan ball, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2012.


Midrand and beyond
The ANC policy conference in Midrand at the end of June was a forerunner for what is to come at the national conference at Mangaung in December, at which the leadership of the movement (and effectively of the country) will be up for grabs. Few will forget the 2007 Polokwane national conference, where incumbent President Thabo Mbeki was ripped untimely from the leadership by supporters of Jacob Zuma, the current incumbent. Political observers, ANC supporters or critics and politically engaged South Africans are awaiting Mangaung with all the anticipation of an Ali-Frazier bout.
But, as the Midrand policy conference demonstrated, the ANC big fight will be far more complex than a boxing bout. Also, as Midrand showed – with its fisticuffs and bottle throwing between factions – it will involve the audience as much as the participants, and far more shadowy forces in the ANC-led alliance, business and South Africa’s intelligence services.
Having banned the media from much of the Midrand conference, the ANC leadership tried to paper over the cracks, downplay the clear disagreements and ignore the movement’s inability to agree a coherent economic policy. Zuma’s allegedly radical second transition was effectively dumped and turned into the second phase of a transition with fudged and vague policies on land, nationalisation of mines and other key economic areas. The ANC spin doctors tried to pass off minor changes as having no relation to the growing struggle for leadership, which could see Zuma ejected as unceremoniously as Mbeki was, but with twice the residual bitterness.
At the end of the Midrand fiasco, ANC policy chief Jeff Radebe said to the media and movement members, “Let me just deal with this elephant in the room: There are no Jacob Zuma or Kgalema Motlanthe supporters – there are simply ANC supporters.” He went on to argue that the end of the second transition plan “has nothing to do with leadership. It is a political discussion; anybody saying otherwise is extremely mischievous. It is extremely mischievous for anyone to equate the second transition document with the second term for president.” But how can a political decision within the ANC be divorced from leadership?
Understanding Mangaung
At this point, if you want to understand what is going on and what will happen in December pick up Who Rules South Africa? Plaut and Holden’s book is the nearest thing you will find to a guide and explanation of how and why the ANC functions as it does, who holds power, who gains from power and how the power-plays will develop. The book is both a balance sheet of the ANC in office, of the uneven political, economic and social development of the country since apartheid and a forensic analysis of where South Africa is now and might be heading in the future; and why.
It is not comfortable reading – but then the role of journalists and writers should, as the American writer Finley Peter Dunne wrote, be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is made clear at the start of the book when the authors in their introduction say that “South Africa’s air of a well-governed liberal democracy is beguiling” – it exudes confidence and prosperity for tourists and business visitors, while its racism is no longer so overt that it troubles visitors. Racism, however, still “plagues relations between its peoples,” whilst the governing elite mouths platitudes about equality and redistribution of wealth but seems little worried about the plight of the poor majority (ix).
The comfortable, who believe either that South African business and economic growth will go on as before regardless of politics, or ANC supporters blinded by hope and hankering for the mentally simpler days of “the struggle”, will be afflicted by the book. This is one reason it should be required reading for all who want to understand South Africa and the ANC today.  Read more…