Dead man walking?

2014-05-21 10:00

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Last week, President Jacob Zuma was at the peak of his power. From this week, he will be a dead man walking.

He wa at the height of his power last week because anyone who is anyone in the ANC was anticipating his decisions on Cabinet and premiership appointments as eagerly as refugees awaiting the arrival of a World Food Programme convoy.

During the elections campaign, they will have done much sucking up and made many silly statements in his defence just to get noticed.

They will have outdone each other in singing the praises of the Nkandla design and even buttering up one of his wives, MaNtuli, about the success of her weight-loss regime.

But after Sunday, this will all change.

No, the president is not about to be impeached, couped, recalled nor have a vote of no confidence passed against him. He will be entering that lonely chapter in the life of a leader when he is given lame duck status.

It is that space in a leader’s last term when power starts to slip through his or her fingers.

The cruelty of the lame duck phase is that it does not hit the leader with one cracking blow. It is a slow bleed. The victim gets to watch the blood pouring out of his system and is powerless to stop it.

He will find people nodding politely in agreement when he says something while fully aware that they are just respecting the coat he is wearing.

Like partygoers wanting to move on to a more interesting guest, they will be looking past his shoulder and cursing under their breath for him to finish the conversation.

Zuma will not be the first to experience this. It happens to the most powerful leaders the world over as their clocks wind down. The randy boy-king from Swaziland is one of the few who will never have to experience this.

President Jacob Zuma’s likely successors will begin to assume more limelight. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Zuma’s other major frustration will come from the realisation of his powerlessness in choosing a preferred successor.

Final-term leaders tend to become preoccupied with the preservation of their legacy so they go out of their way to position those they believe will carry on their works. By the time they get to their second term, they start empowering those they believe are made in their own image.

But more often than not, dynamics within political parties and general society conspire to make them fail in this quest.

Nelson Mandela would have preferred Cyril Ramaphosa to carry on his conciliatory and inclusive style of leadership.

Instead, he got a Thabo Mbeki, who believed that he not only knew the diagnoses and cures for the nation’s ailments, but could act as doctor, pharmacist, nurse, ward assistant – and philosopher.

Mbeki is believed to have wanted the more technocratically minded and intellectually inclined Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to carry on his legacy of crafting a modern state and elevating Africa’s status in world affairs.

His dreams were dashed when he was succeeded by Dlamini-Zuma’s ex-husband, whose qualities are well known to South Africans but certainly do not include those mentioned above.

Zuma, in contemplating his own successor, will primarily be looking for someone who will help him stay out of jail.

But, like his predecessors, he will find he has little in terms of influence. From next week, ambitious leaders in his Cabinet will be positioning themselves and lobby groups will be pressurising potential candidates to raise their hands.

The starting pistol will have been fired in the 2017 race for ANC leadership and the 2019 dash to lead the country.

When Ramaphosa was elected as the ANC’s deputy president in Mangaung in 2012, some saw him as a shoo-in for the top job when Zuma goes. But even he has realised he is not a universal favourite and will have to fight to secure the prize.

In the mix will be the older guard who have served the country’s four presidents. There will be Dlamini-Zuma, who is the preferred candidate in KwaZulu-Natal and the one most trusted by Zuma loyalists to look kindly on him should his troubles resume.

The name Jeff Radebe is not often mentioned in succession debates, but his experience as the longest serving minister and one of the ANC’s grandees puts him in play.

There is Lindiwe Sisulu, a child of ANC royalty whose name comes up whenever a female candidate is speculated about. While her government record would stand her in good stead to lead, she lacks an obvious constituency and is viewed as having an alienating persona.

The race for 2017 top honours is further complicated by the younger set who are not prepared to wait for a gradual handover of power from older generations.

In the provinces and in Cabinet, powerful players are looking at the next five years as a time to consolidate their places or score comebacks. Think Paul Mashatile, Malusi Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula, among others. Although these men’s ambitions are known, there could be others in the field who will surge to the front pack when the timing is right.

While the older generation recognises that the 2019 general elections is the last time they will be able to make a play for top honours, the younger generation is mindful of the fact that this will be the last election in which the ANC was guaranteed a total victory.

So when Zuma and his inner circle put together the Cabinet and appoint premiers, they will have more than just geographic, gender, skill and constituency balancing acts to deal with. There will also be considerations about the ANC he wishes to leave behind when his party term ends in 2017.

To this end, they will also consider elevating and raising the profiles of those they would like to move into the top six to surround the 2017 president.

But, as history and experience have shown, they may be near powerless in dictating this.

In the end, they may turn out to be just another lobby group on an equal footing with other factions in the organisation.

That is the cruelty of the lame duck status.

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