What Provoked the Battle of Pretoria?

No one seems to know much about what’s behind the current chaos in Pretoria/Tshwane. The rioting, burning of buses and looting in the townships around the nation’s capital erupted on Monday night, June 20, and continued through Tuesday. The unrest seems primarily related to an African National Congress decision to replace the current mayor, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, with Thoko Didiza—an A.N.C. stalwart from KwaZulu-Natal Province—as its mayoral candidate for the forthcoming August local government elections. The violent protests have spread from the townships outside the city center to parts of Pretoria itself.

On Tuesday morning the main national road was blocked by debris and tires, street disturbance similar to the kind of actions folks who are old enough will remember were common in streets leading into townships during the protests in the 1980s apartheid era. This time, unlike the 1980s, the defense forces were nowhere to be seen. Within areas affected by the protests, it has been claimed, police presence was limited, to the chagrin of shop owners whose businesses were looted by protesters.

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In a move likewise similar to that of the 1980s, the state broadcaster—the South African Broadcasting Corporation (S.A.B.C.), called by cynical observers today (as then) “His Master’s Voice”—has been less than comprehensive in its coverage.   

There seems to be a state of denial about the protests. The A.N.C. has denied that members or supporters of the party have been involved and called the actions the work of “agent provocateurs” or—in language reminiscent of the chaotic years leading up to the 1994 general election—a “third force.”

Party apparatchiks have been quick to point out that selection of mayoral candidates comes from the A.N.C. leadership, not from the grassroots. Some have even complained of “indiscipline,” which sounds contradictory at least, if not an admission that the protests originate in grassroots A.N.C. supporters’ disaffection with the decision to bring in an outsider to run as a candidate in local elections. Many observers feel the race will be a close-run affair.

Surveys have suggested that the A.N.C.’s hegemony in Tshwane is under threat from both the right (the Democratic Alliance) and the left (the Economic Freedom Fighters), an observation not restricted to this metropolitan area but to a number of big cities in South Africa.

If, as most observers suspect, the “battle of Pretoria” is the result of disaffection of A.N.C. supporters, what does this mean? What is going on?

Some insiders are suggesting that the battle is over turf and entitlements. It is widely held that the protest is being orchestrated by supporters of the embattled current mayor who fear that an outsider will clean up local government, putting many out of the lucrative access to local government tenders. These tenders, they say, are offered to political cronies regardless of whether they deliver goods and services to the municipalities efficiently and economically. Many local citizens are sick and tired of overpriced and inefficient service delivery and are tempted to vote against the ruling party.

A poll released last week suggested that the D.A. had 49 percent popular sympathy in Tshwane. Knowing this, and fearing the shame of losing the national capital to an opposition party, an opposition coalition or the A.N.C. having to form a ruling coalition with an opposition party, the A.N.C. leadership has decided to parachute in an outsider to win back support.

Conversely, others see Didiza’s nomination as an attempt by President Zuma to take further control over a divided and splintering A.N.C. by bringing in someone from his political home base, KwaZulu-Natal. It highlights the expansion of this bloc—sometimes called the “Zulu mafia”—into areas where Zuma’s power is weaker. In a strongly Sotho-Tswana area like Tshwane, this adds ethnic insult to political injury. However, it should be noted that Didiza had served in Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet and resigned from her post when Mbeki lost the presidency to Zuma and has been a resident of Pretoria for a number of years.

Her record in the cabinet is spotty at best: under her watch the Land Bank, a government financer of agriculture, got into serious financial trouble, despite advance warnings from external auditors. She was nominated after local nominations for mayor were deadlocked and is not overtly a member of the Zuma faction of the A.N.C.

Although a cynic might say in contemporary A.N.C. politics, allegiance is often ruled by expedience.  

Beyond these contradictory analyses, what does this crisis in Pretoria indicate? It suggests a ruling party that is deeply divided into factions increasingly willing to use violence within itself to seize or maintain control, a party riddled with corruption and marked by incompetents whose continued survival depends on the control and mobilization of factions driven by personal gain. It also raises the question: if this kind of crisis marks the run-up to local elections, what might happen if the A.N.C. actually loses control of one or more of the metros where its rule is threatened?

Whatever way one looks at it, it does not bode well for democracy in South Africa.

Anthony Egan, S.J., is one of America's Johannesburg correspondents.

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