Zuma Rules Supreme Over S. African Elites Engulfed by Chaos

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President Jacob Zuma
The position of President Jacob Zuma, seen here, remains solid, with his party quashing two attempts by opposition lawmakers to sanction him through no-confidence votes. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

Infighting at South Africa’s power monopoly and biggest labor group last week exposed the chaos that’s come to characterize the rule of President Jacob Zuma as the country’s elites battle for influence.

From state-owned companies to prosecution services, and tax collectors to police, some of South Africa’s most important institutions are battling themselves. The rifts have filled newspaper pages and drawn attacks from the opposition. Yet the position of Zuma, the man overseeing it all, remains solid, with his party quashing two attempts by opposition lawmakers to sanction him through no-confidence votes.

“We now have a state clearly led by a man whose method of governance is purely patrimonial,” Nic Borain, a political analyst who advises BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities, said by phone on April 1. “It’s all individual loyalties and client relationships between leaders and the recipients of services, all the way down to social grants and employment from the state.”

A crisis at Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., the utility that supplies about 95 percent of power in Africa’s most-industrialized economy, has curbed growth and added to the risk of further credit-rating downgrades. The poor performance of other state companies has forced the government to provide bailouts to keep them running, souring investor sentiment.

The rand has weakened 11 percent against the dollar over the past year, reaching a 13-year low in March. The currency declined 0.1 percent to 11.8116 as of 4:28 p.m. in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the rating on the nation’s debt last year.

Labor Split

The African National Congress, which came to power with Nelson Mandela at its helm, has ruled South Africa since the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. During that time, it has expanded the provision of social grants and extended electricity, water and housing to millions of citizens.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, its biggest affiliate, have been kicked out of the labor federation.

Cosatu, part of an alliance with the ruling African National Congress, expelled Vavi on March 30 for “rebellious conduct,” four months after severing ties with Numsa after it withdrew support for the ANC. Once 2 million members-strong, Cosatu now faces a split as six more affiliates protest Vavi’s dismissal, threatening the ruling party’s influence over labor groups.

Cosatu Implosion

Cosatu said in a statement Vavi had abused the trust shown in him and brought the organization into “disrepute.”

“Cosatu has collapsed and is really shattered,” Borain said. It “represents a gradual disintegration of the consensus around the ANC as the mass liberation movement.”

The federation’s “implosion” came after its leaders became more interested in national politics than looking after their members, founding General Secretary Jay Naidoo said in March 30 opinion piece in the Johannesburg-based Daily Maverick, a news website.

On the same day that Vavi was fired, Eskom Chairman Zola Tsotsi resigned when he lost the board’s support over a decision earlier that month to suspend Chief Executive Officer Tshediso Matona and three other senior managers. The company that’s struggling to fill a 225 billion-rand ($18.7 billion) funding gap and has resorted to rationing power because it can’t meet demand, is left without permanent management in its two most important positions.

Eskom Investigation

While Zuma backed the investigation into Eskom and Matona’s suspension, according to the Johannesburg-based Business Day newspaper, senior ANC members were against it, according to two people familiar with the situation.

“The big elephant in the room is the president,” Julius Malema, the leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, told reporters that day. “He interferes in every institution of the state.”

Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj said the view that Zuma’s governance style was to blame was “too easy an analysis.”

“Many countries have these issues from time to time,” Maharaj said by phone from Cairo on April 1. “We shouldn’t make too much out of the coincidence of time. There are problems and they’re receiving attention.”

Broadcaster Infighting

South African Airways CEO Monwabisi Kalawe was suspended in October and is being investigated for corruption after clashing with the airline’s chairwoman. He denies wrongdoing and is challenging his disciplinary hearing. The South African Post Office is under Treasury administration, while infighting at the state broadcaster, SABC, has resulted in board members being fired.

The National Prosecuting Authority’s deputy head, Nomgcobo Jiba, was charged on March 24 with two counts of fraud and one of perjury amid a clash with Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega.

The police minister in February removed Anwa Dramat as head of the Hawks special investigative unit for alleged involvement in the illegal repatriation of Zimbabweans. He was cleared of wrongdoing by an oversight body, and Dramat said he was being targeted for conducting probes of “very influential people.” Robert McBride, the head of the police’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate, has since been suspended.

Corruption Perception

South Africa ranked 67 out of 174 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, lagging behind African nations such as Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda and Ghana. More than 70 percent of South Africans say corruption has worsened since 2010, a survey released by the nation’s statistics office on Dec. 4 showed.

The Zuma-led ANC lost 3.8 percentage points of support in last year’s elections, bringing its share of the vote to 62 percent. While opposition groups will seek to capture Johannesburg and other major cities in municipal elections next year, no party is large enough to rattle the ruling party.

“There would be no room for people in the ANC to say he is taking it down, because the ANC will win elections nonetheless,” Prince Mashele, executive director of the Centre for Politics and Research, said by phone. “At next year’s local government elections, the ANC may lose a few municipalities here and there, but it will still be the predominant political party.”

On Feb. 25, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene appointed a retired judge to investigate the South African Revenue Service, a state institution seen as stable in the past, after at least three senior managers were suspended or resigned following Tom Moyane’s appointment as commissioner in September.

“The problem at the Hawks, SARS and Eskom is that they have networks generating within and out of office and government, conspiring against each other,” Steven Friedman, the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, said by phone. “The ANC does not seem to have a solution to these problems.”

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