A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. And, in South Africa, where there is never a dull political moment, a week can feel like an eternity.
However, unlike some other parts of the world, where fast-moving political events can lead to overnight change, dramatic news flow in this country tends, instead, to reinforce established trends. The tipping point arrives, therefore, via a process of attrition rather than sudden disruption.
But what are these established trends?
Firstly, the much-revered African National Congress (ANC) is in decline, owing largely to its prevailing association with a ‘predatory elite’ that has abused the movement and its brand for personal enrichment.
Secondly, this predatory elite still holds sway inside the ANC, but it has few supporters outside. In addition, it is starting to lose ground internally to a faction that could be loosely termed the ‘sensible centre’. Therefore, the ANC is indeed at “war with itself”, but no single faction is strong enough, currently, to mount an assault for control.
This stalemate is playing itself out in various ways. A politically motivated move against the Finance Minister runs into intra- Tripartite Alliance, Cabinet and societal headwinds. ANC veterans call for the President to step aside, while others march in his defence. Nuclear energy remains on the agenda, but the request for proposals is delayed. Eskom tries to hobble independent power producers, but the Energy Minister names new bidders and outlines a gas-to-power framework for private generators. Inflammatory statements about the banks are made by a Minister and then dismissed by the President. Outrageous comments made by ANC leaguers are heavily criticised by the mother body. ANC lawmakers join opposition Members of Parliament in applying pressure on certain Ministers, the public broadcaster and State-owned companies. Policy inaction and uncertainty persist and crucial appointments are not made. And (at the time of writing, anyway) the much-vaunted Cabinet reshuffle fails to materialise
Thirdly, politics is becoming more competitive. While the poor performance of the ANC in the municipal election was as much down to absenteeism as it was to some opposition success, the ANC has definitely ceded control of the political discourse. It is too early to say for certain whether the municipal alliances formed to keep the ANC out will hold. It is also premature to suggest that these deals will definitely form the template for national and provincial outcomes in 2019. However, the day of ANC hegemony over policy formulation and implementation are arguably over.
Lastly, civil society has rediscovered its voice and is likely – together with opposition politicians and the media – to play an increasingly powerful role. The FeesMustFall movement is but the most visible example. However, various civil society formations – on both the left and the right – are gearing up to play a more muscular role in everything from combating corruption to shaping future energy and transport policy.
In sum, the political environment is changing materially. However, these changes could take longer to manifest than one would suspect from a mere reading of the news headlines.