FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday May 25, 2019, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa waves as he leaves after being sworn-in at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. A South African corruption watchdog on Friday July, 19, 2019, said President Cyril Ramaphosa "deliberately misled" Parliament about a campaign contribution, a setback for the leader who has vowed to address sprawling graft allegations that forced his predecessor from office and sparked national outrage. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, FILE)
While leader Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party devours itself, those for whom it is ostensibly fighting continue to suffer © AP

This should be a defining moment for the African National Congress party. In May, the South African party won a reduced, but sizeable, majority under its new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. Jacob Zuma has been jettisoned. The former president is now having to answer for himself at the independent Zondo inquiry into “state capture”, under which whole branches of the executive were allegedly sold off to private interests during his nine-year presidency. 

Now, at last, the ANC can get back to tackling South Africa’s real problems. The only hitch, to borrow an idea from Africa Confidential, a specialist newsletter, is that there are two ANCs. And they are at war.

Mr Ramaphosa’s ANC thinks of itself as the constitutionalist wing. It believes in the rule of law, an independent judiciary, an independent central bank and due process. For most readers of the Financial Times that is like saying it believes in milk and honey. 

The other ANC, represented by Ace Magashule, secretary-general of the party, is the Zuma wing. It believes that constitutional niceties are overrated. They were inherited from whites who ran the country — entirely for their own benefit — before black majority rule in 1994. Sticking too closely to the white script, goes the Zuma side of the argument, merely preserves the status quo. Just look at the continued yawning gap between the lives of the 80 per cent black majority and the 8 per cent white minority.

To its critics, the Zuma wing of the ANC is really about something else: survival. Now that Mr Zuma’s power has withered, those who allegedly benefited from years of corruption face expulsion or even prosecution. 

The battle lines between the two wings are visible everywhere. Take the central bank, where Mr Ramaphosa has reappointed Lesetja Kganyago to a new five-year term as governor. Mr Kganyago is considered an excellent central banker by his peers. He believes in keeping inflation tamed and strictly regulating banks. Above all, he believes in an independent central bank. 

That goes against the Zuma wing led by Mr Magashule, which wants to alter the bank’s inflation-targeting mandate to include growth and employment. The public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, a nominally-independent ombudsman, issued an instruction to parliament to force the bank to focus on “socio-economic wellbeing of citizens”, though a Pretoria court ruled that her judgment was unconstitutional. 

Still, the ANC’s most senior body wants to “nationalise” the central bank, which (quirkily) has been privately owned since it was established in 1921, although its shareholders exercise no influence over policy. Mr Kganyago sees the threat of nationalisation as a ruse to render the central bank subservient to the ANC’s political agenda.

Another battleground is Eskom, the state electricity “provider”, which is struggling to keep the lights on after years of mismanagement and corruption. Mr Ramaphosa would like to split Eskom into three state-owned businesses — generation, transmission and distribution — and cut its bloated staff. A few members of his constitutionalist wing might even like to remove the Eskom punch bowl from ANC temptation altogether by privatising it. 

Naturally there is a fightback, led in part by the unions with which Mr Ramaphosa, a former labour leader, is himself aligned. The upshot is that the finance minister, Tito Mboweni (constitutionalist wing), has, through gritted teeth, agreed to pump in an additional $4.2bn into Eskom after providing $1.8bn last year. 

Another battleground is the public protector’s office, which was anti-Zuma but is now, under Ms Mkhwebane, working against Mr Ramaphosa. She has accused the president of deliberately misleading parliament by failing to disclose a suspect political donation of 500,000 rand, a judgment Mr Ramaphosa is challenging in court. 

Other fights are being waged over land expropriation, control of the once-super efficient tax authority and the judicial fate of Mr Zuma, who still faces a string of corruption charges. There have also been frequent scuffles in parliament. The most recent occurred in early July when Pravin Gordhan, public enterprises minister and a staunch supporter of Mr Ramaphosa, was physically threatened and called a “constitutional delinquent” by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical ANC breakaway. 

The tragedy for South Africa is that, while these battles rage, the economy has stalled. Joined-up policy has stopped. Growth this year is set for a measly 0.5 per cent. In per capita terms, the economy has been going backwards for years. While the ANC devours itself, those for whom it is ostensibly fighting continue to suffer.

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