President bangs on about unity, but it is he himself who infected a party that is falling further apart by the day

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has warned South Africans who display symptoms of lysteriosis, a dread disease caused by bacterium found in soil, water and vegetation, to seek urgent medical assistance. But this outbreak, though severe and even life-threatening, can be treated. What’s less clear is whether the appearance of the political equivalent of Munchausen syndrome on the bodies politic here and across the world can be successfully contained, and quite how much damage it will do to the sovereigns it infects.

In medical terms, this syndrome is when an otherwise healthy patient acts as though sick — often getting multiple opinions for an illness that, in effect, does not exist. In other words a cry for sympathy, attention or a diversion from dealing with other psychological pathologies.

Before June, British Prime Minister Theresa May went to the polls proclaiming her “strong and steady leadership” as needed for the looming Brexit negotiations. Her political miscalculation nearly cost her the job and forced her to rely on hardline Ulster Unionists to maintain her finger nails on the door of No 10.

All misgivings on her leadership were met by Tory insiders and the general opinion classes that “strong and stable” had been replaced by “weak and stable” – since all other leadership options were worse, and she needed to be kept in office for fear of her replacement being a hardline socialist, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn’s old-style Labour offers radical economic transformation minus the corrupt rent-seeking embedded in its South African version. But last week, even the slight pretence pushed by May and her small circle — that her weak and steady leadership would survive — was under threat from the Ulster Unionists over the issue of the Irish border. This, in turn, bedevilled the exit talks with the EU.

The noncoalition that keeps the Tories in power on the basis of Unionist support for so-called “confidence and supply measures” makes the loose agreements in SA between DA mayors and the EFF in three large metros seem easy by comparison. They at least do not have to face a mighty EU trade bloc determined to make the Brexit divorce as difficult and costly as possible, just in case any other EU members entertain thoughts of uncoupling from it.

But May is a rank amateur in the Munchausen political disease ranks. Pole position in the world must belong to US President Donald Trump. He rails to his 32.4-million Twitter followers that he — a plutocrat billionaire bestride the mightiest political office in the world — is a serial victim of fake news, “Crooked Hillary”, his own special counsel (which is circling ever closer to his family and office in his Russian investigation) and multiple conspiracies.

This week, he endorsed an alleged paedophile for election as US senator in Alabama. On the matter of the “access Hollywood” tape, which revealed his own disparagement of women and for which he apologised in 2016, he reset the issue last week by suggesting his voice on it could be false.

But there is an interesting disconnect between Trump’s fantastical attention-seeking and issue-diverting politics and the state of the US economy. It is scaling unprecedented heights. The stock market is at record highs, up nearly a quarter since his election, growth is a healthy 3.5% and employment levels are around 95%.

SA is not so lucky. Our economic prospects are enmeshed in our lousy politics. And what powers our local bourse, apart from the carry trade, is the hope that Cyril Ramaphosa will beat Jacob Zuma’s anointed one and set the economy to rights. This is quite a tall order — the former, since the outcome is too close to call, and the latter, since many of the state capturers and the usual suspects who drive and thrive on corruption are going to stick around regardless of who heads the ticket.

But it has to be said that in his outgoing act as ANC president, Zuma displays Munchausen syndrome on steroids. His grand parting gesture to a party he has rent asunder has been to pose as “Mr Unity”. Many decode this call as a last asset grab in the hope that he can blur the difference between the state looters and the Ramaphosans, who have promised to clean the barn. Shackle them together, in the event of a Ramaphosa victory, and “alooter continua”.

The one candid comment Zuma once offered was that he put the ANC ahead of SA. Having debauched our currency, nearly destroyed the economy and degraded our public finances and institutions, he has been true to his word.

I am now entirely sure he has pretty much destroyed his own party as well, or the version of it he inherited 10 years ago. On his watch, no fewer than three breakaways have occurred: COPE, the EFF and now a new version of a “better ANC” in the form of Makhosi Khoza’s African Democratic Change.

But to add to this trifecta, a further local tremor was added to this disunified mess. The good voters of Sasolburg did something for the second time in South African electoral history. Way back in 1985, this constituency — then confined to a whites-only electorate — was the only electoral district to return to Parliament, in a by-election, a representative of the ultraright Herstigte Nasionale Party.

Admittedly, that victory by Louis Stofberg only happened because the more mainstream rightist Conservative Party (CP) chose to sit out the contest. In fact, it was the war between these two rejectionist parties during the 1980s that allowed the relatively reformist National Party government to win a slew of seats on a split vote that might otherwise have gone to its more verkrampte opponents.

Today, of course, Sasolburg in the northern reaches of the Free State is the town centre of the multiracial, black-majority Metsimaholo local municipality. And two weeks ago, in the early hours of Thursday, a seismic shock registered on the Richter scale of our current politics courtesy of another CP — this time the South African Communist Party (SACP). In its electoral debut as a stand-alone party, leaving its electoral alliance with the ANC for the first time in 23 years, the SACP won about 10% of the votes in the municipality and achieved three seats on the newly elected council.

Quite what the national implications of this move might be is unclear. But for certain, the president of a governing party who proclaims he stands for its unity is delusional. If you add together all the dissenting versions of the once-unified ANC now on electoral offer and place them together with the 35% plus of all the other opposition parties, you enter multiparty coalition territory in 2019.

Since the festive season is now upon us, and with it the season of hope for renewal, all South Africans, of whatever political stripe, will hope the 5,000-plus ANC delegates soon to gather at Nasrec will make a free and inspired choice in their leadership. Whatever motivates the delegates, a clear look at the record of plunder and the seeds of disunity sown by their outgoing president should help inform their choice.

Good luck to them, and happy holidays.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Business Day