Despite denials by the African National Congress, a second wave of purges of opponents of President Jacob Zuma in the governing alliance is clearly under way. This time round it is more co-ordinated and on a much larger, unprecedented scale than the purges that followed the ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki in 2007. It could have far-reaching consequences for South Africa.
The ANC national leadership, now firmly dominated by Zuma and his allies, last week moved against the two ANC structures that led the campaign to have Zuma removed. In one fell swoop it buried both the ANC’s provincial leadership in Limpopo and the leaders of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
While officially the ANC said this was done to “correct the organisation”, it carries the distinctive hallmark of a purge. Anti-Zuma factions in some other provinces such as the Eastern Cape, North West, Free State, Gauteng and Western Cape could also expect the axe – or what ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe prefers to call a “broom” – to come down on them.
Other potential casualties of the purges include deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Though neither has yet been removed from their positions, Motlanthe has effectively been sidelined and, as previously reported, in Cosatu the daggers are out for Vavi. If Vavi survives, it will most likely be with severely clipped wings.
Following the ANC national executive committee’s four-day lekgotla last week, both the Limpopo and ANCYL leadership structures were replaced by interim ones. Those eventually elected to new permanent structures are expected to be Zuma loyalists.
Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale, former close ally of ousted ANCYL leader Julius Malema, has been removed as ANC provincial leader. However, he will stay on for nine months as premier, by which time new provincial leaders have to be elected and a new premier must be appointed.
No time frame was set for the election of a new ANCYL leadership – probably to allow time first to clean up provincial ANCYL leaderships.
The move against the ANCYL leaders came despite earlier reassurances given to the Youth League that its national executive would be spared after they subjected themselves to the new national executive of the mother party.
These developments signify a concerted effort by Zuma and his allies to consolidate their grip on the party and on power in general. It may eventually bring greater stability to the ruling party, but less so for the country as a whole, since it may feed into the changes taking place on the broader political landscape reported on elsewhere.
It further raises questions about who eventually will succeed Zuma, when this will happen, and how smooth this transition will be. Zuma himself does not seem in any hurry to get out of politics or give up power.
The process of consolidation of ‘Zuma power’ started back in 2007 after a well-orchestrated palace revolt that ousted Mbeki as ANC president and filled ANC leadership structures with Zuma allies. Less than a year later, Mbeki was forced to resign as head of state.
During a first wave of purges, many other Mbeki supporters were either forced out of the ANC or their positions, or left voluntarily. The ANCYL and ANC Women’s League were also firmly sucked into the pro-Zuma political zone.
But serious factional divisions remained in ANC structures and some provinces, which worsened midway through Zuma’s first term and particularly during the run-up to the 2012 national conference in Mangaung. This gave rise to what may arguably be perceived as the second wave of purges.
First casualties were anti-Zuma ANCYL leaders, effectively neutralising the Youth League. Then, during the Mangaung conference, Zuma and his supporters outmanoeuvred his opponents and entrenched their dominant position.
Motlanthe was replaced as ANC deputy president by the Zuma-supporting Cyril Ramaphosa. Like Limpopo’s premier Mathale, Motlanthe for now remains in his job as the country’s deputy president by the grace of Zuma.
The onslaught on Vavi is widely interpreted as an attempt to entrench and strengthen the newly dominant pro-Zuma faction in Cosatu led by its president, Sidumo Dlamini. He and other pro-Zuma union leaders now serve on the ANC’s national executive committee.
After the disbandment of the Limpopo and ANCYL executives, Mantashe said the ANC was healthy, alive, intact and bold. He added: “You are going to see that boldness more and more,” without offering any details.
On the question of whether the latest developments are a purge following the Mangaung conference, Mantashe offered what was at best an ambiguous denial: “If it is a purge, it is a purge by the conference,” he said.
Addressing the media in Limpopo, sacked ANC provincial leader Mathale also denied there has been a purge. But he might have had a good motive to do so, having been allowed to remain as premier for a further nine months. Mathale has already indicated that he will be available and would attempt a comeback when a provincial conference has to elect new leaders.
Meanwhile, the government that Mathale leads in Limpopo is not much of a government anymore, with five of its departments under national government administration. The respite is probably little more than a nine-month notice that Mathale will be replaced.
If current developments in the alliance indeed reflect a tightening, or even monopolising of power within the ANC-led alliance, the question is whether the trend will manifest in some or other way in government.
For instance, with little effective opposition and more secure and dominant power, will the Zuma administration be tempted to abuse this power through, for instance, curbing the independence of the judiciary, reigning over the campaign against the media, tightening up state secrecy and, in a worst-case scenario, seeking to extend the constitutionally stipulated term of rule of the president?
There are ample case studies for such scenarios in Africa, and in respect of all these issues listed here – except the term of office of the president – such moves have arguably already begun since Zuma became president.
For now, ‘Zuma power’ is here to stay – dominant, firm and fully in control.