The unprecedented series of events that occurred before, during and even after Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address have rightfully left South Africans – and perhaps many overseas – just that bit more uneasy about the country’s nascent democracy.
While violence in a parliamentary chamber is hardly unique to South Africa – it has happened in Turkey, Taiwan and the Ukraine amongst others – the sight of police officers ominously armed and plain-clothed was a flash-forward moment into what the country could become if the dangerous precedents of the now are not vigorously opposed.
From the arrests of senior DA office bearers on Adderley Street just hours before to the jamming of cellphone signals and politically-inspired editing of the broadcast visuals, South Africa witnessed the re-emergence of political intolerance and autocratic tendencies.
It was also not only a glimpse into a horrific future scenario but also a reminder of the same in our not so distant past.
When hegemonic nationalistic political parties who conflate state and party and remain in power for extended periods begin to become vulnerable to the loss of that power, they have the unfortunate propensity to use less salubrious methods – chiefly acting with impunity & in an autocratic way – to maintain the status quo.
How ironic that parallels begin to emerge between the ANC of today and the National Party of yesteryear. Even the ‘rooi-gevaar’ of old has shifted from the Communists to the EFF ‘cockroaches’. The misuse of the SABC and increasing ‘capture’ of state institutions for political ends confirms this trend.
South African may rightfully be extremely concerned given the context of the past and the precedents for the future. The real question now is what are the political consequences of what occurred – and it’s not only the disruptions and cell-phone issues but also the lacklustre content of Jacob Zuma’s speech itself.
In the immediate period following the SONA, Predictable sabre-rattling from the likes of Speaker Baleka Mbete and other Cabinet Ministers have defended the procedural issues and also the speech itself. However, whatever you might think of the EFF strategy, the combination of heavy-handed (and potentially unconstitutional) actions and a speech bereft of new growth ideas have deeply embarrassed Jacob Zuma.
Don’t just assume that this is all dissolved without repercussion within the governing party. Despite his apparent grip on power, President Zuma remains vulnerable. While he might have surrounded himself with yes-men, there is a larger second-tier of the ANC that will question what happened and the shame it has brought the country.
Those who will be critically analysing the events (and the policy-deficient speech itself) run a broad church – not dissimilar to the ANC itself. Financial backers, trade unionists, civil servants, religious leaders, the Treasury, intellectuals alienated by Nkandla, and those who have been side-lined by Zuma himself but remain in the organisation will all be looking at strategic options.
Whilst the allure of being a political insider with Jacob Zuma’s has been his greatest strength, there are still enough well connected, capable and connected ranking ANC backers who will now be looking for a faster exit strategy for the President.
Chief amongst these will be the broader trade union movement – already deeply divided. Although the DA takes a more ethical and moral high-ground approach in practicing their politics, the deeply democratic tradition within the broader Alliance are also well practiced and nurtured with the unions themselves.
Jacob Zuma represents – within the hegemony – the leader of those that enjoy the benefits of power. No doubt, there is a sub-section of the ANC (and those outsiders like the EFF) who want to get their hands on that power. But, fortunately, there is also a body of ANC insiders who will question the events of last week – and the on-going political and economic malaise affecting the nation.
It is this group that will be of critical importance in the coming period. Can they make their voice heard over the ring-fence that now surrounds the President? Do they have the political stomach for what can be a very uncomfortable battle to restore accountability to the executive?
Ultimately this group is in itself ideologically divided. The moderate centrists, pragmatic in their commitment to a more social-market ideology may be pitted against those with workerist tendencies who will look to a movement like the United Front as the next bulwark against the ANC.
Pivotal to this will be the role of a leader of the likes of Zwelenzima Vavi who would have to choose to acquiesce or make an historic break with the party of Liberation.
Ultimately, what happened on the 12th of February might still be a watershed moment for the ANC. To assume that the entire party is happy with the current state-of-play would be naïve. Equally though, the window for resistance from within has narrowed as the Zuma laager grows stronger.
Alternatively, events on Thursday may harden the electorate’s shifting attitude towards the ANC. The disruptions might not win the EFF many new adherents, but it will play to a growing urban electorate incrementally shifting from a Zuma-led ANC.
The combination of the deterioration of our institutions of democracy and a questioning electorate may result in us looking back at this moment as a defining week in the future course of South Africa.
In the short term, corrective action will need to come from within the ANC or its broader Alliance members. The medium to longer terms will see the electorate shift and realign. Both set the scene for more political combustion in the near future.