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Zuma delivers heavy blow to already wounded ANC

2019-07-15 19:31
Former president Jacob Zuma in court. (Phill Magakoe/AFP)

Former president Jacob Zuma in court. (Phill Magakoe/AFP)

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Jacob Zuma today has wounded an already fragile ANC. By suggesting that "modern askaris" are behind his downfall, he casts aspersions (and doubts) on a host of current ANC leaders and state apparatchiks, writes Daniel Silke.

Former president Jacob Zuma pressed some well-worn buttons in his testimony before the Zondo commission on Monday. And, like a soap opera, it was packed with open-ended innuendos, accusations and a whopping dose of political intrigue.

Of course, playing the victim was always going to be Zuma's trump card. But, the healthy dose of conspiracy theory meted out by the former president will have left many in the ANC reeling.

Indeed, no-one should ever have expected Zuma to admit any culpability in the hitherto unproven allegations of state capture. But in the process, Zuma has ushered in another bout of intense internal ANC navel-gazing over issues that once again threaten to undermine party cohesion at a highly fragile moment for President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Other than blaming international agencies for an orchestrated campaign to besmirch his character (clearly unsuccessful since he later became president), Zuma effectively laid the blame for his character assassination at the door of his own party. And, he did this through the narrative of questioning the genuine struggle credentials of his fellow ANC cadres.

In labelling Ngoaka Ramathlodi, a former mineral resources minister, a spy (rapidly denied by Ramathlodi), Jacob Zuma was returning to the well-worn habits of old within the ANC – and habits that were ultimately nurtured by the apartheid police state at the time.

Discrediting opponents within the ANC was often associated with besmirching an individual as a spy – but since the apartheid state had largely infiltrated key ANC positions, such allegations were often correct.

Still, the sensitivity within the liberation movement of their overt and covert linkages to the state security and intelligence agencies still affords Zuma the chance at a defence of his position and an ultimate message that he was the genuine freedom fighter unlike others who were sell-outs. In this way, Zuma claims legitimacy as the "real" ANC while his detractors are themselves "character assassinated".

Zuma's morning defence will have a profound impact on an already skittish ANC. Racked by internal factions and multi-pronged fissures, the ANC now finds itself reminded of the days of old.

Worse, though, Zuma's accusations of how the "enemy" had recruited ANC insiders – as was done in the apartheid days – to deliberately remove him from the political scene, will be the most damaging accusation to the governing party.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Zuma's line, such accusations are likely to create further unease and stress in the ANC. It will add to the political polarisation within the party still evident following Cyril Ramaphosa's narrow victory in late 2017.

Zuma's suggestion that ANC players have been out to get him in cahoots with foreign agencies can create a sense of deep internal suspicion where ANC members look at each other with deep feelings of mistrust and misgivings.

It's the stuff that can really undermine unity – not that unity existed in abundance prior to the Zuma utterances.

Clearly Zuma is happy to ferment greater unease in the ANC. After all, it weakens the fragile grip that Ramaphosa has and also emboldens his supporters still active at a senior levels across the country.

Zuma is asking South Africa – and more specifically – the ANC to take sides not only on his character (in the light of the malfeasance accusations) but more importantly, on whether he represents the epitome of the genuine struggle cadre in a fight against spies and (as yet unnamed) Stratcom-esque individuals and agencies.

Put bluntly, Zuma today has wounded an already fragile ANC. By suggesting that "modern askaris" are behind his downfall, he casts aspersions (and doubts) on a host of current ANC leaders and state apparatchiks. Given the extreme sensitivity that Zuma's strategic invoking of the past battles into modern ANC politics brings, it's yet another headache for embattled Ramaphosa.

While there is still a long week ahead where Zuma might well flounder under cross-questioning, he did enough today to present himself not only as the victim, but as the real or genuine revolutionary. And that might win him some support in the trenches. 

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website

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