Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

South Africa — a worst-case scenario

Professor Steven Friedman, in his article on the potential direction of South African politics during 2008, looked at four possible scenarios pursuant to the charging of ANC president Jacob Zuma.

Like his astute assessments at Polokwane, where his analysis alongside Justice Malala was most welcome, his knowledge on the mechanics of democracy and the South African political arena and its players is beyond question.

As he rightly points out in his article: “The charges against Zuma raise the stakes of 2008’s political battles: they may decide not only prospects for unity in the ANC and our chances of building a stronger democracy, but whether everyone, no matter how powerful, is subject to the law.”

Prior to dealing with the potential four scenarios arising out of the above, he states: “There are four possible scenarios, whose impact on democracy would range from very positive to very negative. But the most positive is virtually impossible, the most negative is probably unlikely, leaving us to muddle along in the middle.

Accordingly, while it’s not all sunshine and roses, it’s certainly no cause for alarm.

In light of the author’s credentials and proven record, it’s very good news for South Africans and even parties considering us as a potential vehicle for investment.

In this article I propose widening the focus in sketching, what is for me, a worst-case-scenario if the division of the ANC into two competing factions, arising from this particular conflict, is allowed to continue unchecked.

It is by no means meant as a challenge to Professor Friedman, or indeed anyone else, but rather my deepest, darkest fears that may perhaps be allayed by his good self, Justice Malala or indeed members of the general public.

Accept as a given that in a more mature democracy such as Australia, Britain or the United States, I have no difficulty with the concept that withdrawing charges against a powerful political figure, based on grounds of expedience, for this is what it would amount to, would weaken the democracy, with people believing that some are beyond the law.

We are, however, just 13-and-a-bit years passed apartheid. The vast majority of our people, through no fault of their own, were not afforded the right to vote until 1994. Their experience with the “democracy” that was apartheid and events post-Polokwane are giving them grave cause for concern.

Accept also that, in my humble opinion, people in this country have forgotten, when dealing with this particular issue, not only the demographics of our country but also just how violent this fledgling democracy is. While crime is the major cause of our violence, transplanting it into the political arena seems to me merely a hop, skip and a jump away.

At present the majority of our people believe that Jacob Zuma, the champion of the poor and oppressed, is being victimised by the president and a faction within the ANC who currently hold the sway in government. They, rightly or wrongly, believe that certain elements within the government, as it stands, are using the organs of state to further their own private agendas.

Accordingly, it is not the state versus Jacob Zuma in their eyes; rather it is the faction versus Jacob Zuma aimed at rendering him powerless in the political battles ahead.

Support for Zuma comes from all quarters: from the poor through labour, right up to the rich and powerful. The ANC president was elected by the delegates, in a democratic way, at Polokwane, ready to govern but for what they perceive to be unfair singling out.

Indeed they point to many other members within the party who they claim to be just as, or even more, sullied by corruption and crime who appear to be immune from prosecution.

Which leads to ongoing attacks by one faction against the other, with the public sandwiched in between — all the while not knowing whether this is democracy in action or just another round in the ANC succession battle.

A good current example would be AfriForum’s contracting the Institute for Security Services to compile a report on whether the government is carrying out its constitutional duty to combat crime. In the ordinary course this is an example of checks and balances in motion; at present, an attack on the government and in particular its poor utilisation of state mechanisms in dealing with crime, which coincidentally the NPA just happens to form an integral part of.


Maybe, but unfortunately, in my mind, this sniping may get a whole lot worse and quickly. It will feed upon itself and climax as we get closer to August — the month set for the Zuma trial. Remember, we are still basically on holiday and most groups are spread out all over the country and abroad.

What happens when they start returning to work?

The government will come under increasing attacks from labour, from the masses on the ground, in particular the poorer segments of our population and those powerful elements, within and outside the party, who support the ANC president against the national president.

Considering the other problems the government has to deal with in the ordinary course of business — for example, World Cup 2010, crime and inflation — the burden is going to prove too onerous; Eskom will not be the only one involved in power shedding.

Frustrated by the government’s refusal to back down on Zuma, increasing calls will be made to remove pro-Mbeki members and replace them with supporters of the new president.

The more effective the government is in reigning in these elements and staving off a changing of the guard, the more frustrated the Zuma camp will become. Democracy perceived to be a rich man’s toy that can be overcome by possession is nine-tenths of the law principle. When you’re in power you can manipulate the system to thwart democratic forces.

The police and army become focal points in the issue of the ANC succession debate rather than in combating crime and protecting the country.

The media will highlight the increasing tension and throw a spotlight on each incident of violence, thereby increasing the frequency thereof.

Capital flight, reduction of investment into South Africa and a brain drain the likes of which we have yet to experience are occasioned by the uncertainty surrounding the political divide and the direction South Africa is taking — the toll on the economy and thereby the ability of the government to sustain growth and stability is vastly reduced.

Which is then highlighted by the faction opposing government, which increases the struggle both inside and outside the party.

Which leaves us where?

The issues of whether we are strengthening our democracy in creating a precedent by withdrawing charges against Zuma and serving the interests of justice thereby, fallen by the wayside, replaced by a desperate need for someone or something that can bring stability.

Anyone or anything?

Moreover, the very question of whether democracy is the right system for South Africa may well overshadow other takes on what are the crucial issues facing our democracy.

I wonder what American philosopher, commentator and author Francis Fukuyama — whose 1992 work The End of History and the Last Man sees the end of the Cold War as the final point in mankind’s ideological evolution; liberal democracy is the final twist in the tail as opposed to Karl Marx’s classless society — would make of all this?

(Fukuyama has many many critics who you can Google at your leisure.)

That, then, is my worst-case scenario (my worst fears), why I believe the ANC must think long and hard before its meeting on January 7. It should set out in clear and concise terms the way forward for the party and the country, because we all know what nature feels about vacuums.

What is happening in Kenya — considered one of the most stable countries in Africa — must serve as a warning to South Africa that hubris and self-interest really are a recipe for disaster.

As I have repeatedly said, there are far brighter stars in the South African analytical galaxy — perhaps by setting me right they may go some way to allaying the fears of many of us on what lies ahead.

While you’re at it, maybe you can also predict when Derby County will go a game without conceding a goal in injury time.

I’ll settle for either.