CAPE TOWN – For political commentator Aubrey Matshiqi, the last five months in South Africa have made him feel like “a child in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory”. The scale of the disorder in local politics may be worrying, but it is as exciting as it gets for someone in his line of work.
Speaking at the Glacier Investment Roadshow in Cape Town on Monday, Matshiqi said that Jacob Zuma’s decision to dismiss Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replace him with the unknown Des van Rooyen changed the local landscape completely.
“On December 9 2015 South Africa became a new country,” Matshiqi said. “On December 8 2015 President Zuma had much more power than he has today, and on December 8 2015 Pravin Gordhan was locked in a corner somewhere as local government minister.”
Since returning to the Treasury, however, Gordhan has assumed more political clout than he ever had before. At the same time, Zuma has seen his power further eroded by allegations around the Guptas and the Constitutional Court judgement on the Nkandla matter.
“What this shows is that you can paint as many scenarios as you want, but I always tell people to add one more,” Matshiqi said. “That is a scenario that will change everything, that will render incorrect all the other scenarios you have painted.
“The decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister changed the course of history for Jacob Zuma and probably for South Africa,” he added. “Just as in June 2005 the decision to fire Jacob Zuma as deputy president changed the course of history for Thabo Mbeki and set in train a set of events that led to his political demise.”
What is telling for Matshiqi is that there is currently something unprecedented happening in the ANC, where stalwarts such as Ben Turok, Trevor Manuel and Cheryl Carolus have made public calls for the president to step down. Even the South African Communist Party (SACP), which was one of Zuma’s biggest supporters, has said that Zuma should resign.
“For me the 2005 chickens are coming home to roost for the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP,” said Matshiqi. “The SACP and Cosatu in particular had a choice in 2005. They could either take the strategic position of rising above the factional battles in the ANC, or, as they chose to do, to become part of a faction.”
Their support played a big role in Zuma’s ascendancy to the presidency.
“We are partly here today, in a situation where the president and his party have become increasingly ambivalent to democratic values, due to the strategic error that was made by Cosatu and the SACP,” Matshiqi argued. “The lesson there, and its not just a lesson for the alliance but for the country, is that we must be careful not to make short term decisions because the medium and long term consequences, as BJ Vorster put it, may be too ghastly to contemplate.”
And while it might seem that the ANC is now in a similar position as it was before the recall of Mbeki, Matshiqi believes that the dynamics are different.
“The difference between Zuma and Mbeki is this: most of those who wanted Mbeki out did so out of hatred for him,” he said. “I suspect that most of those we want Zuma out today are doing so out of feelings of shame and embarrassment. The reason why ANC leaders are coming out today to say that he must go is because they are embarrassed by him and they are ashamed of what the ANC has become.”
He adds out that when Mbeki was recalled he was also not the sitting president of the ANC. Zuma is, and to recall him would require a special conference to make that decision.
What then might lead to a situation where the ANC decides to act?
“The decision to recall Zuma or not as head of state will depend on the same thing that put him there – self interest,” Matshiqi said. “The moment that leaders of the ANC begin to think that Zuma is not only a liability but has become a direct threat to their self interest, they will recall him.”
Initially Matshiqi was of the view that this meant that only internal ANC dynamics would matter. However, he now believes that both public sentiment and what happens inside the ANC might conspire to force him out of office.
“On August 3 we are going to an election and there is a good possibility that voter turnout will be higher than it was in 2011,” he said. “And there is a good reason why that might be.”
South Africans are coming to the realisation that what takes place at the polls may bring about a change of mind amongst those inside the ANC.
“If the ANC bleeds badly at the local government elections and the result is deemed bad enough by internal ANC constituencies, what they will worry about is what will happen in 2019 if Zuma is still the president,” Matshiqi argued. “Can the ANC take the chance of taking Zuma to the next national elections?”
In Gauteng, where there is a real possibility that the ANC will fail to earn a majority in 2019, the party is already trying to distance itself from Zuma. And this sentiment may spread if the polls show that the party’s support is under threat.
“It is for this reason that I don’t agree with those who say the ANC has been protecting Zuma,” said Matshiqi. “ANC leaders are not soft on Zuma, they are soft on their own personal interests. They are not defending him, they are defending themselves. The moment the results show that taking Zuma to 2019 is a risk, they will do the right thing, or the wrong thing, and recall him.”