Guest Column

President views protest marches as a mere side show

2017-04-16 06:03
President Jacob Zuma dancing at his 75th birthday party in Kliptown, Soweto Picture: Leon Sadiki

President Jacob Zuma dancing at his 75th birthday party in Kliptown, Soweto Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Makhosini Nkosi

President Jacob Zuma will most likely step down from office early next year. However, his resignation will not come as a result of the recent marches – one by civil society organisations and the other by opposition parties.

Much as the two marches were a show of force, they will not faze him as they were not conducted by ANC structures, the real centre of his power.

Before the controversial Cabinet reshuffle that spawned these public protests, international news agency Reuters quoted unnamed sources suggesting that Zuma would be willing to step down in 2018 if his desire to fire former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was realised. There was no audible repudiation of the report from the presidency.

The report could well have been a ruse by Zuma’s spin doctors aimed at placating international investors and markets. It could also be that the “leak” was an attempt by Zuma’s strategists to show his opponents that he is willing to surrender power before his term ends in 2019.

People close to Zuma talk of his frustration with some of his ministers. They cite the failure of the ministries of economic development, trade and industry, and small business development to arrest the rising unemployment rate. The creation and support of small, medium and micro enterprises, one of Zuma’s signature projects, is lacklustre.

In the unlikely event that his ANC faction loses the December elective conference, the winning faction’s first order of business will be to remove him from the Union Buildings. Like former president Thabo Mbeki when he was recalled, Zuma will then be a lame-duck president, making it easy to remove him.

Should his faction and its presidential candidate, former African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, win the election as expected, they may prevail on him to step down so that the ANC is not burdened by his unpopularity going into elections.

That move would also help Dlamini-Zuma entrench herself in government. It would avail state resources to be used for campaign purposes in 2019.

Government’s programmes are also used by a sitting president to give traction to the election campaign.

The parliamentary vote of no confidence against Zuma is unlikely to succeed. ANC MPs will vote to keep Zuma while holding their noses. If Zuma were voted out of office, he would go to the party structures and mobilise them to have him reinstated. This would happen after the party recalled dissenting MPs. They would be reluctant to vote against ANC structures, in which Zuma still remains popular.


It is this popularity which probably crushed the rebellion in the party’s top six officials against Zuma and his reshuffle. Those who spoke out against his decision – Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa; Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize – have a mountain to climb to win at the conference. Zuma has changed the character of the movement and moved its grass roots power to KwaZulu-Natal.

Only Mkhize is a credible force against Zuma in that province and the decision by ANC Youth League members to heckle him at the memorial service of struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada was deliberate.

The same fear of Mkhize’s influence in KwaZulu-Natal was also behind Zuma’s decision to show up unannounced at the party event Mkhize was to address in the province earlier this year.

Despite Zuma’s victory at the last ANC meeting, his faction remains challenged by the party’s support base, which appears to be tired of Zuma.

Ramaphosa appeared presidential in denouncing Zuma’s firing of Gordhan. Mkhize, who until then was seen as Zuma’s supporter, displayed a similar posture. The action by the two – being among the ANC’s core voter base – shook Zuma, as this is where it matters.

Dissenters in the top six and the national executive committee can continue exalting the name of the ANC and, by extension, Zuma – or they can seize the momentum of the anti-Zuma coalition of opposition parties and civil society organisations.

They can lead anti-Zuma members out of the ANC into a rainbow coalition that could unseat the party in the 2019 elections. There is precedence of this in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi and, recently, in Gambia.

Until now, all efforts to unseat Zuma have been done through courts and parliamentary processes. All have failed, except in one respect. Every time there is a motion of no confidence in Zuma, the ANC is forced to defend him. A long list of his excesses is narrated by opposition parties on live TV. Voters will recall this come 2019. Even though Zuma’s face will not be on the ballot papers, some will punish the ANC.

Given that Zuma is a political brawler and never backs down from a fight, he will dismiss the opposition’s efforts as racist and, in Shakespeare’s words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. His disdain for opposition parties is well documented.


Currently, the only viable way to remove Zuma from office is through a political solution.

The country faces a political crisis of a magnitude not seen since 1994. We have an unpopular president whose grip on power and ANC structures is equally unprecedented. Those who want to see him go may have to make concessions to secure his voluntary exit.

Leaders across our continent tend to hang on to power out of fear of prosecution when they leave office. With the rising militancy among the party’s youth league structures, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, and self-styled Umkhonto weSizwe veterans, it may well be time for dissidents in the ANC, opposition parties and others to start private talks with Zuma.

Mass demonstrations are essential for leverage, but they are unlikely to persuade him to leave voluntarily. Instead, they will likely make him dig in his heels. A champion prize fighter never leaves the arena as long as he still has challengers.

Nkosi is an independent strategic communication and crisis management specialist

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  cabinet reshuffle  |  protests  |  anc
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