Jacob Zuma: when we were friends

Split in the offing

Following the cabinet reshuffle, Peter Manson looks at the rival factions within the ANC

The African National Congress is in deep crisis following last week’s cabinet reshuffle, which saw president Jacob Zuma dismiss finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.

The ANC consists of various components and factions, of course - not least the South African Communist Party and the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions. But recently these have been overshadowed by two basic wings - the Zuma loyalists and those who now want to see the back of the president. He is due to step down as party leader in December in any case, ahead of the 2019 general election, after which parliament will nominate a new president to replace Zuma, who will have completed his second term in office.

But for years he has been dogged by accusations of corruption - not least over state payments made for the upgrading of his private residence and, more recently, alleged ‘state capture’ by self-seeking businessmen. Most notoriously among the latter are Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta - three brothers who are said to have exerted extraordinary influence over governmental appointments. Ousted deputy finance minister Jonas claimed last year that the Guptas had attempted to bribe him and actually offered him that post.

He and, most importantly, the finance minister himself, Pravin Gordhan, were the main casualties of the reshuffle. Gordhan in particular was regarded by most sections of capital as a safe pair of hands, who was not only a stalwart against corruption, but could be relied upon to control state spending. According to Reuters, he was viewed as “a figure of stability and integrity, who is managing a flatlining economy burdened by high government spending”.1 But last week Gordhan and Jonas were recalled by Zuma from an international investment road show in London after a leaked “intelligence report” alleged they were using it to push for a change in government - or even, according to some pro-Zuma forces, “wanting to overthrow the state”.

Zuma’s allies had accused Gordhan of thwarting the president’s desire to enact “radical economic transformation”, which is supposed to be tackling the racial inequality inherited from apartheid through ‘black economic empowerment’ (BEE). In fact BEE has been a vehicle for the enrichment of those with connections and their promotion to positions of influence under the guise of meeting racial quotas. The new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, is said by some commentators to be not only financially incompetent, but a servant of the Guptas.

Dennis Dykes - the chief economist of one of South Africa’s largest financial institutions, Nedbank - said the cabinet reshuffle was a “disaster”: Gordhan had done a good job. As for Gigaba, putting him in charge of finance was like “asking a motor vehicle driver to fly a plane”.2 Meanwhile Business Leadership SA, which represents many of the country’s major companies, said that the manner and timing of the cabinet changes were not in the economic interests of the country.

Immediately the rand plummeted and on April 3 rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to junk status - two other major agencies were set to follow suit by the end of the week. Fitch Ratings said that the new appointments would see “radical socioeconomic transformation” getting priority over fiscal discipline: “The political backdrop increases the risk that government will resort to costly expenditure measures or legislation that will weaken economic growth to stabilise its support.”3

De facto alliance

While business claims to be worried by plans for “radical economic transformation”, there is hardly anyone on the left who is taken in by such phrases any more. In fact what we now have is in effect an alliance between big capital, the opposition parties and left activists seeking to oust Zuma. For instance, the Save South Africa campaign declared:

The cabinet reshuffle announced by president Jacob Zuma on behalf of the Gupta family is an outrage … It is a brazen attempt to undermine the gains of the liberation struggle by taking power away from the people and handing it over to a clique based in Dubai.4

The group called for marches to the ANC headquarters and parliament, and an occupation of the treasury: “We must chase Zuma and his cronies out of office … We must take this defence of democracy to the streets.”

As for the Alternative Information and Development Centre, it claimed that the reshuffle “opens the door to the looting of the state on an unprecedented scale”. Admittedly, “While the treasury under Gordhan and previous ministers of finance has been the guarantor of neoliberalism, the treasury under the Guptas will be neoliberal and predatory.”5

The AIDC also called for “progressive forces” to mobilise, in order to “bring into existence broad united fronts to launch mass action”. In this it hoped that the left-led split from Cosatu - the newly created South African Federation of Trade Unions, headed by expelled Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi - would take the lead.

Meanwhile, at the March 29 funeral of ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, Gordhan received a standing ovation - a response which provoked a furious reaction from the pro-Zuma ANC Youth League. Its secretary-general, Njabulo Nzuza, said the president should continue discharging his duties, “including rearranging and strengthening his cabinet”. He warned that from now on the ANCYL would “tackle head-on anybody that thinks that they can willy-nilly attack the president” using funerals, which in African custom were sacred: “We will one day be forced to physically disrupt those who find comfort in disrespecting the memory of the dead.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the ANC itself issued a conciliatory statement after the meeting of its national working committee on April 5. The NWC thanked dismissed cabinet members for their previous work, but “accepted the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship between the president and a member of his cabinet as sufficient explanation for the decision taken by the president”. And, in an effort to reassure capital, it reiterated the ANC’s commitment to “keeping the expenditure ceiling … intact” and reinforcing strict control of state-owned companies.

But some individual ANC leaders had not been slow to express their disapproval of Zuma’s actions. For instance, treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize issued a statement expressing his frustration at how the cabinet reshuffle was handled, saying he felt the ANC was no longer at the centre of the president’s decisions. And no less a figure than ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe complained he had not even been consulted about the reshuffle. Interestingly, Mantashe is a member of the SACP central committee, who to all intents and purposes has ‘gone native’ in the ANC.

Whither SACP?

That brings me to the SACP itself. For some time the party has been openly discussing a possible split from the ANC, whereby it would contest elections under its own name. At present its comrades are elected as ANC members - there are 17 SACP MPs and several of them are actually members of the government. However, last month second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said that an SACP split was “almost a fait accompli” (although there could be a ‘reconfigured alliance’, whereby independent SACP MPs still act alongside the ANC). According to Mapaila, the party’s July congress “still has to decide” the question, but no-one has any doubt what its decision will be.

However, for the moment, SACP ministers, including general secretary Blade Nzimande (higher education) and Aaron Motsoaledi (health), remain in post - despite the SACP’s increasing criticism of his presidency, Zuma decided for tactical reasons to leave them in place.

Immediately after the reshuffle Mapaila complained that there was no reason for Zuma to fire Gordhan, as he had been leading one of “the best-run departments” with “absolute cleanliness” and “absolute distinction”. But the SACP was determined not to “allow the country to be run by gangsters” - in fact “We think the citizenship of the Guptas must be revoked because of their poisonous nature” (the brothers were originally from India).

Clearly the sackings were the last straw for the SACP and on March 31 it issued a statement demanding that “Zuma must now resign”. It described the recall of Gordhan and Jonas from “a promotional tour in South Africa’s interests” as “outrageous” - it was “a decisive moment”:

Increasingly our country is being ruled not from the Union Buildings [seat of government], but from the Gupta family compound. More and more, critical ANC decisions are being decided not by elected and collective structures in Luthuli House, but in Saxonwold [a wealthy Johannesburg suburb].

The party called for “popular anger” to be mobilised “in constructive ways that unite South Africans of all persuasions and backgrounds in the defence of our country’s interests”. But it instructed SACP ministers:

Remain at your posts … You have a responsibility to serve a massive constituency and the country at large ... If you are fired at the behest of the Gupta network because of the SACP’s stand on these matters - so be it.

As for Cosatu, while it is “still very much committed to the alliance”, it“no longer believes that the president is the right person to unite and lead the movement, the alliance and the country” - the cabinet reshuffle was “not based on merit, but on political loyalty”.6

In response the April 5 ANC statement commented that it had “reflected on the calls by the SACP and Cosatu, amongst others, for president Jacob Zuma to resign from his position”, and had resolved that members of the NEC “must continue to engage with Cosatu, SACP and organs of civil society on this matter”. The statement was signed by … Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general and SACP CC member!


As you might suspect, after so many years within the ANC-led alliance, the party itself is now divided, with a minority still expressing loyalty to Zuma himself. For example, Dominic Tweedie, who runs several pro-SACP email lists, on April 3 reposted without comment an SACP statement dated December 17 2015 - just after the dismissal of a previous finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene.

In this statement the party had “strongly opposed the regime-change agenda disguised as ‘Zuma Must Fall’”. It called on “our liberation alliance, all formations of the mass democratic movement and democratic people of South Africa as a whole to close ranks” against “an imperialist-supported offensive ... to discredit and delegitimise the whole of our ANC-led national liberation movement” by “singling out targeted leaders”. How times change!

Interestingly, the next day Tweedie reported that one of the email lists he ran, ‘Communist University’, had been closed down by Google Groups, allegedly because it was carrying “spam, malware or other malicious content”. He was clear that “The CU Google Group is suppressed”, although he did not say who he thought was responsible. Now, who could it be?

But pro-Zuma ANC loyalists like Tweedie are very much in a minority - a fact that can be demonstrated by the attitude of Cosatu. In 2014 the federation expelled its largest component, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), because it had broken from the ANC. Two of the unions that engineered Numsa’s expulsion, representing healthworkers and teachers, have themselves now come out against Zuma.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the rightwing Democratic Alliance (whose roots lie in the whites-only liberal Progressive Party under apartheid) is demanding a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Zuma. And the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters has filed a request for the constitutional court to institute impeachment proceedings against him.

For a no-confidence motion to succeed, it would need 201 votes from among the 400 MPs - in other words, at least 50 of the 249 ANC MPs would have to rebel. But, as I have stated, 17 of them are SACP members and there is certainly a substantial anti-Zuma faction - which might take its lead from the likes of Gordhan, who says he is now “unashamedly encouraging mass mobilisation”, and a certain Cyril Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa is the current deputy president - of both South Africa and the ANC - and is one of the two front runners to take over when Zuma steps down as head of the party in December. But Zuma himself wants his ex-wife - former African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma - to succeed him.

Both Cosatu and the Young Communist League had come out in favour of Ramaphosa (although the SACP itself had not officially stated its position on Zuma’s successor), even though Ramaphosa is viewed by sections of capital as “market-friendly”. Hardly surprising, since, despite his origins as an anti-apartheid militant and union leader, he is now one of the country’s richest men. It was Ramaphosa who sent out several emails on the eve of the 2014 Marikana massacre demanding that firm action be taken against striking mineworkers - 34 of whom were shot dead by police the very next day.

But for the moment Ramaphosa is saying that, like the SACP, he will remain in the cabinet, even though he is “unhappy about this situation” - for him, Gordhan had been “serving the country with absolute distinction, with great ability”, and his sacking was “unacceptable”.

It is quite possible that the likes of Ramaphosa and Gordhan will lead an open rebellion within the ANC, which could end in a split. If that happened no-one would be surprised if they were joined by the SACP, as it looks elsewhere for a vehicle to lead the ongoing “national democratic revolution” - the “most direct route to socialism in South Africa”.



1. http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-safrica-zuma-exclusive-idUKKBN1711C1.

2. www.fin24.com/Economy/removal-of-gordhan-the-road-to-ruin-20170402.

3. Ibid.

4. Statement, March 31.

5. https://aidc.org.za/zuma-goes-broke-unite-fight-zuma-policies-go-aidc-statement.

6. www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=12610#sthash.uksGc9t4.dpuf.