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Vol 58 No 8

Published 14th April 2017

South Africa

Zuma's edifice starts to wobble

After denouncing the sacking of Gordhan, oppositionists and ANC dissidents hit the streets. Then it's over to parliament

Pro-democracy forces brought tens of thousands of protestors into South Africa's streets last week following President Jacob Zuma's ousting of Pravin Gordhan from the Finance Ministry and his replacement with Malusi Gigaba. 'I don't ask questions. I simply comply with the instructions given to me', said Gigaba on being appointed. This marks the fifth change in finance minister in two years. On 18 April, a vote of no-confidence in President Zuma is due to be held. He is expected to win comfortably, although much will be read into the size of the winning margin.

Anxiety is growing that Gigaba's accession signifies the completion of the 'state capture' of public finances by Zuma's patronage network and the Gupta family, which has joint business interests with Zuma's family and friends, as well as an increasing stake in local industry and commerce (AC Vol 58 No 5, Zuma's anti-Gordhan play). Foreign and domestic investors are worried by the plunge in the local currency, the rand, and the downgrading of South Africa's credit rating to 'junk' status that followed Gordhan's sacking (AC Vol 58 No 4, The state of Jacob Zuma's presidency).

Some 60,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Pretoria, while in Cape Town 20,000 descended on Parliament in the largest protest marches since those of the late 1980s and early 1990s which preceded the first fully democratic elections in 1994. Demonstrators crowded around the gates of the Guptas' Saxonwold compound in Johannesburg. Family members were rescued by armoured military vehicles as Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, one of the Triple Alliance partners of the African National Congress, denounced 'the parasitic looting and patronage networks that have penetrated into the uppermost echelons of the state and the ANC' (AC Vol 58 No 7, SACP threatens JZ). Cronin claimed that the real reason for the dramatic midnight cabinet reshuffle a week earlier was to prevent Gordhan from justifying in the courts his refusal to allow the Guptas access to leading banks and the block on them from acquiring Vardospan, a bank currently owned by Habib Bank. There is little doubt that Gigaba will quickly remove obstacles that Gordhan had placed in their way.

The protestors who brought major cities to a standstill on Friday included dissident ANC members, trades unionists and SACP members, as well as the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose leader, Mmusi Maimane, made an impassioned speech to a crowd of thousands in Pretoria. The marches and rallies were well organised and generally peaceful. A dozen or so civil society organisations under the umbrella of Save South Africa, a coalition of ANC dissidents and CSOs, were also represented.

Some political commentators sensed an atmosphere similar to that which led to the overthrow of apartheid in the late 1980s, driven by the home-grown anti-apartheid coalition, the United Democratic Front. 'I think the genie is out of the bottle and there is a lot of life left in this popular uprising,' said one leading civil society leader. 'But it could be a long haul.'

Wednesday 12 April was set to see a massive demonstration called by the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters converge on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. On Tuesday 18 April, another demonstration is scheduled for Cape Town as Parliament hears the no-confidence motion in Zuma. The United Democratic Movement has applied to the courts for this vote to be conducted by secret ballot and the petition has been allowed. Zuma is widely expected to win but the size of his margin and the numbers who turn out on the demonstrations will be what everyone is watching.

One seasoned banker in London responsible for bringing billions of rands' worth of investment and securing capital loans worth hundreds of billions said he was shell-shocked by the firing of Gordhan. 'It's game over for South Africa on the international capital markets,' he said. 'This is self-harm on a scale which makes Brexit look like a tea party.'

Despite the dire implications for the South African economy, which has seen a general slowing of foreign investment since major labour violence in 2012, Zuma intends to send his new Finance Minister on an investment road-show at the earliest opportunity, Africa Confidential has learned. Gordhan is also said to be keeping his options open in terms of maintaining contact with foreign investors. He has called for mass mobilisation inside the country for Zuma to go and clearly has no intention of leaving the political arena but has given no indication of his next move.

Zuma's command of the upper reaches of the ANC is convincing. He won the support of the National Working Committee before sacking one-third of his cabinet and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced to apologise after criticising the reshuffle in public. Zuma is now expected to get his way at the ANC's policy conference in June, with his campaign for 'radical economic transformation'. His critics see this as a smokescreen for raiding the state coffers, although there is a widespread consensus on the need to address poverty, inequality and joblessness. Such success would also set the scene for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him as ANC President at the party's Elective Conference in December. Dlamini-Zuma declared last Friday that the protests were 'rubbish' and just another example of white privilege and the resources white people controlled.

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