Giraffe and cloudsOne of the most pressing concerns about South African politics is the erosion of vital institutions of the state. At the end of 2014 there were two particularly uncomfortable developments. The first was in the form of tensions that have built up at the South African Revenue Services, emanating from allegations that some senior managers had established a rogue unit, with unauthorised surveillance functions within the agency. Some claims have even suggested that a certain senior SARS manager ran or had an association with a brothel.

Thomas Moyane, the new SARS Commissioner, wasted no time upon assuming office, and swiftly targeted senior managers that he accused of engaging in shadowy activities. There have also been worrying intimations in the media that these developments are not entirely unrelated to the struggles that President Jacob Zuma has had with the law, especially since one of the charges that were drawn up include racketeering and tax evasion; as well as taxable component of the personal benefit derived from the upgrades in his Nkandla homestead. As such, Moyane is seen by others as an instrument in the hand of Zuma to recondition SARS in ways that would be favourable to the President or powerful politicians.

The second worrying development has to do with the ambiguous tensions at the South African Police Services around the suspension of the Hawks commander Lieutenant General Anwar Dramat. In his letter to the Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko in response to his suspension, General Dramat suggested that the main reason for his suspension is because his investigations targeted “very influential persons”.

Questions of leadership and governance deficiencies will continue to define the core of South Africa’s challenges for many years to come. Transparent, independent and effective institutions are the bedrock of any functioning democracy. They are vital for good governance. The two institutions cited above, that are caught up in chaotic wave, are not the only ones that have countenanced interference or bastardisation by politically appointed officials.

While on the surface, South Africa boasts a sound constitutional framework that lays out the responsibilities of those who govern towards citizens, and define the roles of various independent agencies to keep government accountable, the key institutions that are at the execution end of law and order are becoming severely compromised. What is evident though is that even with the soundest constitutional framework, it is possible for a country to go adrift, if those who preside over institutions have not internalized the values of good and effective governance. This is especially so when politicians see themselves as above law.

What the country has suffered through in recent times and will continue to stare at for years to come is the reality that the internal politics of the ANC have a deleterious effect on the functioning of the country’s institutions. It is not that the ANC as a collective deliberately undercuts state institutions, but that there does not seem to be a respected ethical framework or political authority that can restore reason and order.

The danger that we face, of course, is that when at the systemic level, the institutional foundations of society are shaken, all kinds of dubious elements will find spaces to exploit for their own narrow ends – from organized criminals who no longer fear the might of the law to corrupt individuals who ride on factional ticket to plunder the state. Instead of building a modern democratic state, with a bureaucracy that is insulated from politics, politicians motivated by short-term gains and venality tend to prefer a more informalised political and bureaucratic framework.

There was a period when much consternation in society was about the ANC’s influence over various organs of state for ideological purposes, to install cadres who would pursue parochial party policies. That does not seem to be much of a concern any longer: the major concern is that there is a rise in the factionalisation of state institutions in ways that do not seem to follow ideology or party policies, but preferences of powerful personalities.

Now, taking a glance at what may possibly characterise our politics in 2015 and beyond, it is clear that there are already signs that give us cues of the shape of things to come. The first of these signs are intimations of fissures at the top echelons of the party, with the Polokwane consensus between Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, and Blade Nzimande gradually giving way.

Mantashe, a former trade unionist, and Nzimande, the leader of the South African Communist Party, first championed Zuma’s presidency because they thought he could be reined in and that they would be able to influence the ideological and policy direction of the ANC and government in line with wishes of trade unions and communists. In fact one minister from the tradition of the South African Communist Party to have celebrated Zuma’s rise by remarking that: “Now, that we have a floating president, we are going to raise the level of debate above him.” Instead, what they have encountered is a leader who floats with his eyes wide open, and whose loyalty is neither in the ANC nor in Leftist ideologies. Mr Zuma is more embedded in personal networks outside of the party, but is very much aware of his authority as a preeminent leader presiding over the state.

Many have suggested that Mantashe is no longer as wedded to the Zuma faction as he once was. He is not close to Zuma in the way that, for example, Nzimande is. As a senior party leader in Luthuli House, Mantashe does not seem to have the kind of influence over Zuma that is commensurate with his party position. Although Nzimande has expressed misgivings about some of Zuma’s preferred appointments in some of the State Owned Enterprises, he remains a firm Zuma loyalist.

Second, the fracture in the Polokwane consensus is institutionally expressed in the strain suffered by the tripartite alliance between the ANC, the SACP, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), especially over different interpretations of the ANC’s political strategy under Mr Zuma. The ongoing implosion of COSATU, marked by the expulsion of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) – as well as the emasculation of the SACP since it tied itself too closely to Zuma – signals the beginning of the end of the ANC’s unquestioned dominance in South African politics. It is a matter of time before it loses the grips of the organized workers and even the unemployed.

It is evident that there will be more unravelling of the ANC as a result of the ugly developments in the trade union movement. These tensions within COSATU are likely to spill over to the next cycle of succession battle within the ANC beginning in 2015, and culminating into the elective conference at the end of 2017. Already Numsa, boasting about 380 000 members, has launched a political vehicle – the United Front – has enjoyed the support of a variety of Left-wing organisation, and is hoping to present itself as a coalition under which parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, the United Democratic Front, and other smaller parties, could unite and take on the ANC at the polls in 2019, perhaps beginning with the 2016 local government elections.

Tensions within COSATU may likely deepen as a result, with NUMSA organizing in sectors that were usually exclusive to the National Union of Mineworkers, vice-versa, and with potential for serious confrontation.

Third, from the 26 June to 29 June 2015 the ANC will hold its National General Council (NGC), which is a mid-term stock taking platform, and a preparatory phase for the party’s elective conference two years later. The NGC will be followed by the National Policy Conference, which should take place in the middle of 2016, where intense policy discussions and repositioning of the ANC ideologically takes place.

Usually, both the NGC and the National Policy Conference are testing grounds by various factions of the ANC for their leadership ambitions. At that point, Lobbying for leadership starts to take shape. Often, ideological and political differences are used as proxies for preferred leadership slate choices.

Because Zuma’s term as ANC president is coming to an end in 2017, he will gradually lose the political gravitas he once commanded within the tripartite alliance. In all probability, Zuma will be headed to 2017 an isolated and weakened leader presiding over a severely fractured organisation. There may be strong suggestions from some of the ANC factions for the term of the ANC president to be aligned to that of the country president, which would be a sensible proposition if not calculated for factional gain.

The attractiveness of this proposition lies in the fact that the gap between the ANC’s elective conference and the country’s elective conference forces institutions and policies of government to be in a state of limbo, and with blurring lines of political authority. The newly elected ANC president in 2017 will be politically more powerful than the country’s sitting president, as is the tradition of the ANC. This has a potential to create unnecessary friction between the two centres – Luthuli House and the Union Building. This could be resolved through aligning the two elective processes – that of the party and that of the country, with not more than a year’s gap between the two.

Finally, there are certain political repertoires that have come to define the ANC’s elective conferences since 2007. The most glaring of these is the incident of breakaway parties. After the Polokwane conference in 2007, and following the recall of former President Thabo Mbeki a year later, the Congress of the People was formed. This had negative impact on the electoral showing of the ANC during 2009 elections compared to previous elections.

Again, in the wake of the ANC’s elective conference in 2012, political disagreements led to the expulsion of Julius Malema and his allies in the ANC Youth League. This gave birth to the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013. A similar pattern of the previous elections repeated itself during the 2013 elections, where the ANC’s electoral showing was further diminished. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the developments within COSATU, and the sharp tensions that will surface at the ANC’s NGC in June 2015, culminating into the elective conference in 2017, will lead to the establishment of a new party emerging from within the womb of the ANC, and further weakening the ANC.

It would be fine if these were events that only have an impact on the ANC as an organisation. Sadly, in the short- to medium-term they have a shaping impact on the country’s institutions. Correspondingly, the vitality of the public service becomes sapped, as much of the energies and attention are directed to high politics of palace coups and control of the ANC. In its 2015 NGC the ANC needs to reflect deeply about the crisis of institutions induced by internal party politics, and take seriously the imperative for innovating internal party processes and generating fresh thinking and ethos for renewing the country’s politics.

 This is a revised version of an article published by the Financial Mail.