President Zuma provided some insights in a speech that he made to African businessmen immediately after he announced Nene’s dismissal. At the heart of his thinking lies the deep – and often historically valid – grievance over the manner in which Africa and Africans were treated by Europeans during the past 500 years.

Africa – which, according to him, is bigger than all the other continents combined – has been the victim of hundreds of years of brutal exploitation. Millions of Africans were hauled off into slavery and thereby contributed to the economic prosperity now enjoyed by the United States and Europe.

Africa was carved up by European imperialists who robbed Africans not only of their wealth and freedom – but also of their human identity. Europeans had tried to remould Africans in their own image – as Lusitanians, Francophones and as little Englishmen.

Africans had struggled against all this: they had risen up and freed themselves from the colonial yoke. Jacob Zuma had been part of this struggle. Together with heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, he had risked death and torture to secure political freedom.

However, Africa was now discovering that political freedom meant nothing without economic freedom. The moment had now arrived for Africa to seize its economic freedom.   By economic freedom the President does not mean the bourgeois concepts of property rights, open competition and free and responsive markets. He means the National Democratic Revolution’s goal of getting hold of 80% of the land, property, companies, top jobs etc. in the country.

No doubt, in President Zuma’s view, Nhlanhla Nene was excessively influenced by non-African approaches and was standing in the path of economic freedom.

No wonder that Nene had to go.

By his own admission, the President is neither an economist nor a businessman. Drawing on his training as a political commissar he still thinks that value is determined by the labour cost of producing a product, rather than by supply and demand.

He is however a very astute politician and has a far better understanding of raw political power than most of his critics. He has created a pervasive and effective network of patronage throughout the state by placing loyal cadres in strategic positions – particularly in the security services. He has effectively eroded the independence of key institutions – such as the National Prosecuting Authority, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the SABC. He has tried to corral the courageously independent Public Protector – and is balefully eyeing the courts.

Which leads us to the second question – relating to the ANC. In 2007 the ANC elected Jacob Zuma as their President, knowing full well that he had 783 outstanding charges of fraud against him. They then abolished the Scorpions, the country’s most effective anti-corruption unit. In 2012 they re-elected Zuma and have loyally stood by him in his outrageous expenditure of R246 million on his private retirement home.

Last Monday the ANC leadership unconvincingly tried to assure the country that President Zuma had consulted them beforehand on his decision to fire Nene. They praised him for his ‘bold’ decision to appoint Pravin Gordhan to the Finance Ministry and denied rumours of moves to recall the President. Their reaction is an indication of the degree to which powerful leaders who depend on President Zuma’s network of patronage are in control of the ANC.

Nevertheless, the President has been wounded. For those who base their rule on perceptions of power, it is always a mistake – and sometimes a fatal mistake – to show weakness. And so everywhere in the Alliance, disaffected groupings – including many disillusioned and decent ANC members – are beginning to do their sums in the run-up to the ANC’s 2017 Conference. They do so very nervously – fearing that the ruling faction is deploying the intelligence services to listen to their conversations and to spy on their activities.

The third factor that has emerged from the fiasco is the power of the markets and of public opinion. According to reports, South Africa’s leading banks had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with ANC leaders on Friday morning and spelled out the dire implications of President Zuma’s decision to fire Nene. The week has taught us – and we hope the ANC as well – that we live in a globalised world in which markets will brutally punish aberrant behaviour. The choice is pretty stark: it is either fiscal responsibility, the NDP and economic growth, or the NDR, ‘economic freedom’ and bankruptcy.

Finally, the week has revealed a fundamental flaw in our constitutional system relating to the manner in which the President is chosen. The Constitution endows the President with enormous powers: he is the head of the national Executive and has the power to make appointments (including ministers) that the Constitution or legislation requires. And yet for all practical purposes the President is chosen every five years by a majority of the 4000 delegates to the ANC’s national conferences. The delegates, in turn, are chosen by processes that are often opaque and easily manipulated. So the President is accountable, not to the citizens of the country – but to a cabal of party delegates who can be easily manipulated by this or that faction within the ruling alliance.

It is time that we amended the Constitution, not only to implement the electoral reforms proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert, but also to make provision for the direct election of the President. Such a development would effectively promote the constitutional values of openness, accountability and responsiveness. It would also place some healthy distance between the Executive and a legislature that has long since ceased to exercise any effective oversight powers. It would also ensure that the electorate – and not 2000 or so ANC delegates – would appoint the most important office bearer in the country.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: GovernmentZA via / CC BY-ND