How a patient Zuma came out on top

2010-12-26 13:26

You had to be very brave – or very loyal – to believe that 2010 would be Jacob Zuma’s year.

Battered by another love-child scandal, savaged for an underwhelming State of the Nation address, and with his leadership of party and state aggressively challenged by Julius Malema, conventional wisdom had concluded that Zuma lacked the ability to reunite the ANC or lead the country out of a globally triggered recession. And that was just the first two months.Despite a successful World Cup, the indecisive start to the year seemed, for a while, to be its high point. Zuma’s enemies salivated at the prospect of an early, Julius Malema-powered retirement. Punters were taking bets on whether he would last one term – much less the 10 years of a two-term president. The ambitious in the ANC’s ranks began whispering about his suitability for high office and the need to save the ANC from his apparent passivity.

And when ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa broke ranks to turn up as Malema’s defender when the ANC initiated disciplinary action, tension within the ANC’s top six finally exploded into public division. The coalition that propelled Zuma’s ascendancy in the party and the state had come undone. The succession dogfight dominated headlines to such an extent that the organisation had to formally gag its members to prevent the issue from destabilising the party. Even trusted allies went for the president. The Congress of SA Trade Unions pushed his administration to the brink in a bitter, damaging public-sector strike that brought the machinery of government to a grinding halt.

But that was then.Just a few months on, it is difficult to give credence to the then prevailing idea that Zuma was teetering on the brink. As 2010 draws to a close, Zuma looks strong, confident and ready to lead the ANC into the municipal election campaign early next year.As president, he has edged out the Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy – probably the most divisive document to emerge from the ANC since the PAC breakaway in 1959. In its place, he has introduced the New Growth Plan which, although not universally welcomed, at least provided the basis for advancing the country economically without splitting the alliance.

So how did Zuma survive the early assault on his presidency and finish the year looking more comfortable than any president in the past 12 years?His fans believe it is because he is a better strategist than his predecessors. They believe that he recognised that success required holding together, in a “broad church” ANC, the range of potentially conflicting material interests – workers and the broader (and often unemployed) working class and its leaders, alongside the black diamonds of the middle class and the emerging (and, for a tiny minority, emerged) capitalist class that has emerged from the ANC that won the election in 1994.

Equally important, he has understood that this broad church inevitably involved the ongoing and sometimes turbulent push and pull of these contending class forces in the party, and that, to an extent unparalleled under his presidential predecessors, these contending forces could be harnessed into a single team in government.He has, in consequence, never attempted to impose a single identity on the ANC, or to recreate it in his personal image. Nor has he attempted to establish a Cabinet of like-minded individuals.

His detractors saw this as weakness, translating his failure to publicly contest with Malema and others as inability to do so. On current evidence, they were wrong.Another factor in Zuma’s favour is that, like the ANC, he is patient.

As 2010 has demonstrated, Zuma is not easily distracted and will not move until he is ready – until he has built the support he needs for eventual victory to seem effortless and inevitable.He was content to have Malema seize centrestage. Zuma needed to take the ANC with him when he moved to build consensus. And he did build consensus – to such an extent that he barely had to move at all. The ANC’s national general council did it for him. And, having experience as a victim, Zuma understood the sympathy generated by victimhood – and that Malema could not emerge as a victim of his leadership.

Instead, intentionally or otherwise, he allowed the youth league president to be cast as an interloper, an imposter wanting to push the ANC in a direction that was alien to the party. Not only did Malema leave Durban with his nose bloodied, but the event also saw Zuma consolidate his relationships with branches and key power brokers in the provinces.

The challenges facing Zuma in the Union Buildings were different, but not unrelated to his challenges in the ANC – policy contestation in Cabinet, inertia in state-owned enterprises, tardy delivery and the near-failure of municipal governance.After confirming his leadership of the ANC, he moved decisively to the biggest Cabinet reshuffle since 1994. With one stroke, he rearranged his top table and smashed efforts to transform the ANC National Working Committee into an anti-Zuma platform. But 2010 has demonstrated the value of two favoured Zuma tactics – encourage your enemies to underestimate you, and don’t move until victory is inevitable.

All of this suggests that 2011 will be a politically interesting year, and one in which you’ll need to be brave to underestimate Zuma again.

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