Protesters wave banners and flags calling for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN
Protesters wave banners and flags calling for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

SOMETIMES, failing to see a society’s strengths can be as much of a problem as ignoring its weaknesses. Which is why much of the reaction to Pravin Gordhan’s return as finance minister did us no favours by presenting a victory for SA as a defeat.

Last week, some in the African National Congress (ANC) crossed a line by replacing a finance minister who would not let them use public funds for their purposes with one who would. President Jacob Zuma, who remains far less powerful than we are constantly told, did not act on his own, although Nhlanhla Nene’s refusal to do his bidding at South African Airways was the final straw.

He was doing the work of an ANC faction that relies on patronage — it needs public resources to strengthen its power by handing out largesse. It is not interested in programmes for the poor, which is why fake tweets putting lefty language into David van Rooyen’s mouth missed the point. Programmes don’t build patronage because they benefit everyone who qualifies. Patronage politicians need projects (nuclear deals, tenders) so that opportunities can be handed out in exchange for support.

Behind this is also a battle to decide the nature of the ANC. The patronage politicians have a rural base; their opponents are urban. They are associated with the Premier League, the premiers of three rural provinces, working to elect an ANC president who will not stand in their way. They are opposed by the Gauteng ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and union federation Cosatu — all of them urban. In the last election, the ANC lost heaviest in Gauteng, the most urban province — Zuma and the premiers want to react not by winning back the cities, but by building, in alliance with traditional leaders, a vote bank in the countryside. The urban group knows this would leave it no role in the ANC.

This urban-rural split shows why the usual defenders of government decisions, beginning with ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, did not support Nene’s sacking, while the rural barons did.

Nene’s firing sent the disturbing message that the rural barons were dominating the ANC. They have reportedly chosen the heads of the ANC women’s and youth leagues and its KwaZulu Natal leadership — now they could ignore a two-decades-old understanding in the ANC that the credibility of the finance ministry was more important than factional battles. But concern that the Treasury was in the hands of all-conquering patronage politicians united opponents on the left and right because it was clear that economic policy was not at issue, but whether the barons could get their hands on public resources.

Gordhan’s return shows that the barons are not as powerful as they thought. He is firmly associated with the Treasury that the barons wanted dismantled, so their attack on it has been thwarted within days. One reason their attack was thwarted is that the urban politicians know something the rural faction does not: that the market limits their power. Like PW Botha after his Rubicon speech, the barons were thwarted by the economic havoc they caused.

Another is that the urban politicians fought back; meetings between Zuma and the ANC’s alliance partners at the weekend had an important influence on Gordhan’s appointment. So, for the first time, the barons know their urban opponents can also influence decisions.

The battle within the ANC has not ended — it will last at least until end-2017 when the next ANC president is elected. But the barons are no longer assured of winning.

All this signals to anyone who tries to cross the line by turning the Treasury into their fiefdom that they will be pushed back by the markets, political opponents and urban citizens. It is unlikely anyone will try a repeat soon. This must be a huge plus for those who do not want public institutions to be captured for private gain. It shows that the system works — so well that it has defeated the predators in less than a week. While the national debate is obsessed with personalities, a system that reins in bad decisions provides far greater protection than relying on the election of good people.

It is also a reminder that in every democracy, power holders try to bend the rules to remove the obstacles to their power.

What is important is whether they get away with it.

The line that was crossed last week is back because the society’s economic and political realities curbed those who crossed it. That must be the best political and economic news in a long time.

• Prof Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy