Arthur Christopher

Ending 2016 better off with Zuma on the ropes

2016-12-09 09:16

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The past year has emphasised the seismic political event that was “9/12” – the moment a president whose power and authority appeared at the time to be largely unchallenged overplayed his hand and created the seeds of an internal party rebellion that has been the primary undercurrent to this year’s extraordinary political activity. 

There have been some epochal moments this year that, for better or worse, will determine South Africa’s longer-term political course. As far as the president is concerned, one of the year’s most damaging events was undoubtedly the Constitutional Court judgment against him in March – forcing him to “apologise” and, as the EFF had for so long demanded, “pay back the money”. 

In the same month Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas gave, through his claims regarding the Gupta family’s offer of riches in exchange for political favours, real expression and political bite to allegations of “state capture”. As we know, these allegations found their way to the crusading former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, whose report in October has added weight to internal calls for Zuma’s removal from his state position. 

Indeed, the State of Capture report formed the basis for the demands for Zuma’s resignation made by an illustrious group of ANC elders in November. This was soon followed by a heated debate concerning Zuma’s future in the party’s NEC – providing the first real sign of the president’s waning grip on the party’s most senior leadership cluster. 

Beyond this, the event that has most harmed the president’s previously casual assumption of authority has been the ANC’s poor performance in this year’s municipal elections. The ANC entered the elections holding seven of the country’s eight large metropolitan municipalities, and emerged from them with just four (one of which, Ekurhuleni, it was forced to enter into coalitions to keep hold of). 

The power and patronage that the ANC has had to cede to the DA and EFF in these pivotal political and commercial centers has been extraordinary, eliciting a far more immediate sense within the party that its current course – unless fundamentally adjusted – could well see it lose the majority in Gauteng in the 2019 elections, while coming perilously close to ceding the national majority at the same polls, too. 
Meanwhile, some of Zuma’s closest allies have been forced onto the back foot by a surge in damaging leaks concerning their personal and political conduct. Most important in this regard is the erosion of Zuma’s grip of the institutions forming his perversely-named “Anti-Corruption Task Team”. 

Most notably, Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza is facing calls in court for his appointment to be overturned on the basis that he is not “fit and proper” for the role; SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane may face criminal charges for defending his “second-in-command” Jonas Makwakwa; Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, after having been thrown under the bus by the president during the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla hearing, was told by the same court that his suspension of IPID head Robert McBride was invalid; and at the NPA two of Zuma’s closest allies – Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi – have been suspended after being disbarred. 

Time will tell whether NPA head Shaun Abrahams is genuine in his desperate search for public sympathy after his about-turn on the charges against Pravin Gordhan, but it at least appears clear that the Hawks can no longer rely on him to implement the political strategies they may hatch to erode opposition to the president and his allies in the future.  

Zuma has unambiguously and quite likely irreversibly weakened as a result of these changes, undermining his capacity to engage in a bold play for the political ascendancy. It is indicative that most of Zuma’s recent statements have been delivered to small audiences in his home province, KZN. It was here that the president recently stated that he “knows who is stealing” – an open threat to those in the ANC that he fears will look to regain public legitimacy through forcing the president to face up to the corruption charges that he has for so long dragged through the court system. This was a threat, but also an opening negotiating statement to those with whom he will need to engage in order to agree on the terms of his exit as party and state leader.

The president has not only retreated to a zone of geographical safety, but has also begun again to deploy the tactic that formed the basis of his campaign for the ANC presidency in 2007 – that of playing the innocent victim to a sustained drive by his “enemies” to undermine him and send him to jail. In the build-up to 2007, however, Zuma was able to tap into fertile resistance to Thabo Mbeki, acting as the pivot around which a wide range of institutions and individuals were able to form in order to orchestrate a sweeping shift in the ANC’s leadership style, and policy preferences. 

As we know, most of those who drove the president to power in 2007 have since become his most ardent critics – none more so that EFF leader Julius Malema. 

The terrain for the president now is so much less receptive to his claims of victimisation, and the enemy he now claims to be pushing for his exit so much less believable, too. The president and his more stoic allies are driving the narrative that his enemies are afraid of the racial transformation he has driven during his presidency; that they form part of an international capitalist conspiracy intent on preserving the monopolistic control of the elite at the expense of the poor. For Zuma, the threat of the downgrade to “junk” status forms part of this broader conspiracy: a drive by a global establishment of countries whose names he claims to have forgotten, to undermine the BRICS union. 

Next year will be Zuma’s final year of functional political authority. There is virtually no chance that he will be able to mount a successful campaign for a third term as party leader. Indeed, even his most dogged defender – the indefatigable ANCYL leader Collen Maine – has shifted his initial claim that Zuma should run for a third term as party leader, to demanding that he is at least afforded the opportunity to see out his terms to the end of 2017 and mid-2019, respectively.

 The former appears likely – mostly because the ANC is too factionally paralysed to act decisively for or against the president prior to the next elective gathering. The latter now appears increasingly implausible. The ANC cannot afford to take Zuma close to another election. It needs, as Gwede Mantashe has outlined, a “fresh face” to attempt to close the “trust deficit” that has grown during Zuma’s time in office. 

The nation will be more consumed next year with what comes after Zuma, than with Zuma himself. This process will further weaken the president’s capacity to re-establish his waning authority. He will have to tread more carefully in order to ensure that the deal he is able to strike with his successor is protective of his personal and patronage networks. 

He will not be able to reshuffle his cabinet without at least the endorsement of the ANC’s top six. This means that, while he may be able to protect some of his closest allies in cabinet, he won’t be able to remove those – like Derek Hanekom and Pravin Gordhan – that present the greatest obstacles to the expression of his executive authority without inspiring an even bolder and potentially more successful drive against him from within and ANC leadership. This is a leadership that is clearly growing tired of the constant “negative narrative” that is attached to its president. 

It has been a tumultuous and deeply uncertain year, but we at least are ending it in slightly better shape than we started it – with a dangerous and damaging president increasingly running out of road, and a range of democratic institutions that have managed, against at-times extraordinary odds, to hold the line against wider executive abuse. 

In this sense it is notable that South Africa has managed to not to fall over the “junk” cliff. It will require a tremendous effort to continue to hold this line, but it seems more possible now than it appeared to be just 12 months ago. 

* Arthur Christopher is a political analyst, a defiantly liberal corporate apparatchik and a part-time offensive midfielder.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    state capture  |  jacob zuma
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