Ralph Mathekga

The wishful thinking trap: Zuma is not weakened

2017-08-21 09:08
President Jacob Zuma. (AP file)

President Jacob Zuma. (AP file)

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I thought it necessary to put out a disclaimer before going into this article: This article shall not be used to pursue factional political battles by any party or any group of people belonging to a political party. There you have it!

There is a wishful thinking trap that holds that President Jacob Zuma’s grip on power is waning. When asked for evidence to support this claim, those who hold this idea often point to various battles that Zuma is engaged in and seems not to be doing well in.

Indeed Mr. Zuma is stretched because he is involved in too many battles at the same time; some taking place within government while others are raging within the party.

At times, it becomes difficult to distinguish between party battles and those happening at state institution level. This is because some of the fights involving the functioning of state institutions such as the courts do have implications for the battles Zuma is waging against his detractors within the party.

Indeed Zuma’s hold on power is waning, but not because someone out there is waging a successful war against him, only because he is prone to own goals and his tenure as the president of the ANC is naturally coming to an end.

In the greater scheme of things – given the multiple battles he is involved in – Zuma is still in charge of his party and he is willing to demonstrate that, whenever circumstances dictate.

Despite being hauled to court to explain his controversial decisions, which includes the Cabinet reshuffle that led to Pravin Gordhan’s departure from Treasury in March, Zuma has survived a secret motion of no confidence staged by the opposition in Parliament.

What has become clear after the motion is that he survived by a close margin, which is interpreted to mean that he is severely weakened.

But if you take into consideration the fact that the motion came amidst strong indications that his relationship with the Gupta family might come to be the worst form of racketeering in recent years in an African state, then Zuma’s victory indicates he is relatively stronger than we are willing to admit.

As if surviving the motion was not enough, Zuma recently went against the renegade ANC MPs who made it public knowledge that they voted against him in Parliament.

The ANC parliamentary caucus leader Jackson Mthembu has become a reluctant enforcer of this witch-hunt project against those ANC MPs who are on a crusade against the president.

Mthembu worked in collaboration with the party hack Gwede Mantashe to make a case that while they thought there were problems in the ANC, there was no need for ANC MPs to use the opposition sponsored motion against Zuma to solve them.

Mantashe is aware of the inconsistency of protecting Zuma while bemoaning the fact that the party is bleeding under his leadership. He is no longer embarrassed to flip flop on the Zuma issue.

Sometimes he spews disdain at how Number One has dragged the name of the party into disrepute, yet he calls off MPs from punishing Zuma in the public gallery.

Mthembu has also mastered the double-talk by painting a grim picture of the ANC under Zuma, while arguing that the problem is not necessarily about him.

The aim is to make sure that the president’s incessant misdemeanours appear abstract and structural, so that the solution does not come in the form of removing him.

Yet Mthembu and Mantashe, reluctant enforcers of Zuma’s project, evidently collaborated in his quest to punish Dr. Makhosi Khoza for her unrelenting noise about how she voted on the motion.

Nobody really cares at this point how ANC MPs voted on the motion because it’s all done and dusted, except for someone who wants to send a strong message as to who is in charge in the ANC.

That person is Zuma, and the endgame is December 2017 where the ANC will be electing its new leader.

Zuma wants a surrogate to take over from him. For him to secure a favourable outcome in the forthcoming elective conference of the party, he knows he has to appear strong and he is indeed appearing so in the greater scheme of things.

The idea that he is weakened is therefore both right and wrong. It is right in the sense that his tenure is naturally coming to an end, which means that there will be a realignment of people hedging their political interests away from him.

Yet this idea is wrong in the sense that it seeks to attribute Zuma’s weakness to the work being done by his detractors within the ANC. No one within the ANC can reasonably claim to be orchestrating Zuma’s demise. There is no evidence pointing to this.

Some have argued that state capture revelations coming through the #Guptaleaks have undermined Zuma. The reality is that he has successfully stalled investigations into state capture without having to break the law.

The Gupta emails were supposed to be the last straw. From the beginning, I was never convinced of this idea. The manner in which the emails have been released and the details coming out have created a situation where Zuma appears as a small player in a multinational corruption scheme involving reputable companies. 

By the time the last email drops there will be very few private companies in South Africa that retain legitimacy. Global conglomerates such as KPMG and SAP have already been implicated in the Gupta scandal to a point where the issue is gaining a life of its own. This is the law of unintended consequences.

Any reasonable person would find it difficult to deny that a meaningful investigation into state capture would have to go beyond the Guptas. This would be the unintended consequence of the #Guptaleaks. It has elevated the issue way beyond Zuma in a way that allows him space to manoeuvre as he works to ensure that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) succeeds.

The only realistic hope that things could turn out drastically different is if NDZ betrays the Zuma project. She can do that either before or after attaining the ANC presidency. This scenario is not impossible, but it has its own risks which I will return to later.  

- Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes

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