Melanie Verwoerd

Could we be witnessing Zuma’s final ambush?

2017-10-11 08:15
President Jacob Zuma waves during the ANC policy conference in Johannesburg. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

President Jacob Zuma waves during the ANC policy conference in Johannesburg. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

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With the release of the ANC delegate numbers there have been endless number crunching exercises going on.

Although there are many things that are difficult to predict in terms of the outcome at the conference, it is absolutely certain that the Zuma camp will only allow the conference to proceed if they are confident that they would win.

What the numbers are showing us is that the most likely win for them would be a Mkhize and Dlamini-Zuma combined slate.

Even though they did not manage to load the KZN numbers, the Zuma faction cleverly secured massive growth in the Premier League provinces, whilst the Ramaphosa-aligned provinces either stayed the same or declined.

With increases of 130% in North West, 57% in Mpumalanga and 26% in the Free State, the Premier League now has 54% of the overall delegates as opposed to 48% at the previous conference.

In a two horse race between Ramaphosa and a candidate from the Zuma faction, if Ramaphosa got 25% of the Premier League, 30% of KZN, 70% of Western Cape and Gauteng, 80% of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo as well as 90% of the Northern Cape – it would be virtually equal.

Assuming that there are no other candidates like Lindiwe Sisulu splitting his support base, Ramaphosa could possibly secure this, but it will be a huge effort.

However, if Mkhize remains in the race, things would change dramatically. With Ramaphosa securing the same percentages, but Mkhize and Dlamini-Zuma splitting the Premier League and KZN votes, Ramaphosa could win comfortably.

Having certainly done the same calculations the Zuma camp will not risk a scenario where Dlamini-Zuma and Mkhize split the votes. Which explains the push for the third way (or the Zuma Plan B), where they would either convince Dlamini-Zuma to withdraw or negotiate a combined ticket with Mkhize.

With this third way one of two scenarios are possible.

If Ramaphosa cannot secure the percentages indicated above, a combined Mkhize/Dlamini- Zuma slate will win.

Alternatively, if Ramaphosa can secure the percentages mentioned above it would once again be close to equal – even with a combined slate.

This would be a very dangerous scenario. A result this close would likely lead to a court challenge or even open violence – causing a huge crisis for the ANC. It would also definitely deepen existing divisions, something the ANC would want to avoid at all costs.

If this seems likely in a few weeks, the push to secure a deal beforehand will escalate. An agreed uncontested slate “for the sake of unity” will pressure Ramaphosa to withdraw.

As they argued to the parliamentary caucus prior to the vote of no confidence the Zuma faction (and those on the margins of both factions) will continue to argue that such a compromise will secure stability, unity and the survival of the ANC, thus preventing an electoral defeat in 2019.

It is a very strong argument and would be very difficult for the Ramaphosa camp to counter.

There is another reason why President Zuma might be interested in the pre-agreed third way. There are whispers in the ANC that he is considering standing as chairperson of the ANC, an idea he might have gotten from his friend Vladimir Putin, who followed a similar path.

At first glance this might look like a very unlikely scenario, but if his ex-wife’s bid for the top job runs into serious trouble, Zuma would almost certainly not trust anyone else to secure his legacy (and he would argue – the future of the party).  

As chairperson, he might no longer be president of the ANC, but he would still carry significant weight. He would have a major role in decisions of the party and thus on the direction the government would take, whether he is president or not. 

Since there are no term limits in the ANC constitution, he would be able to retain this position of influence beyond his time as president of South Africa, whether it comes to an end in 2019 or earlier.

Most importantly, as one of the top office bearers it would also mean that he would be part of any decision relating to the possible prosecution of him and/or his children.

However, Zuma would be unlikely to want to have to contest the position and should he decide to go for it, he would almost certainly want this to be part of a pre-agreed third way. It would most probably mean that his ex-wife would have to withdraw – since two Zumas amongst the office bearers might be overreach.

Without any doubt this would be a very controversial step by Zuma. However, he still has significant support and popularity amongst ANC cadres and therefore it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he would be able to achieve this. It would also be a curved ball that few would have expected.

From his director’s chair in the Union Buildings, Zuma will know that the numbers make it virtually impossible for Ramaphosa to win with a landslide. He will also know that his ex-wife’s campaign is in trouble – especially if Mkhize stands, making a joint slate between them the best option if the Zuma faction wants to retain control.

We will have to wait and see whether he feels the need to throw his own hat in the ring. Of course, if he does decide to stand as chairperson any attempt to spin this as a unity slate, would just be laughable. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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