The lone vulture circles Zuma

2011-06-18 00:00

AS President Jacob Zuma is discovering, five years is a short time in power. One has barely imprinted the position of all Genadendal's light switches, before having to confront the dreaded prospect of removal vans at the front door.

Zuma occupies a unique and unenviable position. For the first time in living memory in South African politics, there's the prospect of a single-term presidency.

Over almost 80 years, every national leader — with the voluntary exception of Nelson Mandela — parlayed the edge provided by incumbency into an extended tenure.

With 18 months to the African National Congress's leadership conference, the decks are being cleared for the next round in the battle for its soul.

At issue is whether the "old" centre-left alliance of trade unionists, communists and non-racialists can hold the line against the growing influence of the right-wing African nationalists.

It will be Zuma versus the annointee of wannabe kingmaker, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, and a slew of political analysts are predicting trouble for the president.

Die Burger's Tim du Plessis this week talks of the Malema "juggernaut", while Malema himself gleefully stirs the pot by now praising former president Thabo Mbeki, the man he once described as a snake to be exterminated, as the "best leader" produced by the ANC.

There are, however, a variety of reasons why expectations of Zuma failing to secure a second term — or doing so only as an agent to the Malema right-wing — are likely wrong.

Zuma has built a solid power base in KwaZulu-Natal, with 70% of the growth in ANC membership coming from here. That's reflected in the ANC's powerful performance in KZN in the recent local elections, as well as Zuma being assured of the largest voting bloc by far at the leadership conference.

Zuma's position is improving, while Malema, although he will be re-elected to the ANCYL leadership, overestimates his power in the larger Tripartite Alliance.

Malema is despised in the South African Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions.

Zuma's greatest weakness is supposedly his lack of leadership, especially in dealing with the constant flow of racist abuse and nationalisation rhetoric from Malema. But one should not confuse a reluctance to act for tactical reasons because the time is not right, with an inability to act.

Zuma headed the ANC's intelligence apparatus in exile for a long time and he has honed two traits: caution and the ability to be ruthless when necessary.

Malema will find that should Zuma secure the nod in 2012, Uncle Jacob is going to be far less avuncular the second time round.

There are ambitious people in the ANC, lean and hungry like Cassius, who see Malema as their ticket to power, but they would be better off waiting for Zuma to complete the two terms that many party members will see as his due. And in many respects, this view is bolstered by Zuma's performance as president.

He has not been anything like as bad as a reading of newspaper editorials would suggest.

Driven by Zuma, the SA Development Community has steadily amplified the pressure on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and the illegal Madagascar regime. Whatever the subsequent qualms, unlike Russia and China, South Africa supported the Nato deployment in Libya.

Zuma is also the first ANC president who has dared to reshuffle his cabinet. The critically important education, health, and agriculture ministries, for so long at the bottom of the class, have all turned in better performances under Zuma's deceptively light rein.

The tide is beginning to run strongly in Zuma's favour. Then again, while five years is a short time in power, 18 months is a long time in politics.

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