Zuma judgment a headache for succession frontrunners

President Jacob Zuma. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)
President Jacob Zuma. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)

THE North Gauteng High Court’s judgment dismissing President Jacob Zuma’s challenge against former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture findings adds yet another complication to the ANC’s imminent succession race - something it needed like the proverbial hole in the head.

The ‘binding’ remedial actions cited by Madonsela mean Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng may now appoint a judge to head up the long-awaited commission of inquiry. 

Clearly, whoever wins at Nasrec will therefore be faced with a deep conundrum: to attempt to bring a semblance of order and credibility to the ANC while at the same time being witness to an extended, potentially unedifying and highly damaging commission of inquiry into the most sensitive matters relating not only to the Presidency, but also to a host of cabinet ministers and other senior officials.

Assuming a Ramaphosa win and also assuming President Zuma remains in his position alongside his cohorts already implicated, two centres of power within the ANC will emerge. This will not only be based on personality or ideological clashes, but on a ‘cleaner’ versus a ‘tainted’ division. 

While there was always going to be a period of time when the position of president of the ANC and that of the country was not unified, this would become all the more difficult to manage should one centre be seen as ‘corrective’ but the other ‘regressive’ in terms of the benefit or damage this can cause the ANC. 

With Ramaphosa and a new Top Six attempting a sentiment and investor reboot, a debilitating commission of inquiry into a broad swathe of top politicians - including the president and his family - will defeat the purpose of ‘self-correcting’, at least for the duration of the commission.

Ultimately, the last thing Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma would want is to be undermined by a state capture commission which would act almost as a poisoned chalice to the rebirth of the ANC, just as the 2019 campaign is under way.

Both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma would be better served by an imminent post-conference departure by President Zuma himself. Either could therefore be propelled into the position of South African president and be able to immediately appoint a fresh Cabinet.

Both would be less encumbered by alternative centres of power, and both would therefore be able to distance themselves from any judicial commission process running in tandem.

SONA and the budget take on a new urgency

While the North Gauteng High Court adds this complication, there was always going to be an issue with the two key showpiece events in February 2018. With global and domestic investors now on a knife edge in terms of ratings, and the broader economy in dangerous decline, the combination of the State of the Nation Address and the budget take on a new sense of urgency. 

Once again, a new ANC leader will surely want their input in both speeches. Without that, and with an ongoing internal power struggle, South Africa will therefore face the delay of yet another year before an economic policy and performance turnaround may be attempted. And this delay will further frustrate political efforts to shore up the ANC’s flagging support among voters.

President Zuma has succeeded in obfuscating just about every legal challenge on a range of graft and corruption allegations. Recent court judgments have narrowed his options considerably. But equally, they make life very difficult for his own party. 

In a sense, had there not been a succession race, President Zuma could have continued to battle through. But even he will understand that both key rivals stand to lose should he continue as president amid a judicial inquiry. 

Whichever one wins, Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma both deserve to begin their term on the optimal footing. Clearly, the destruction of moral and electoral value over the recent past already puts them at a disadvantage.

But to be kept relatively impotent on the sidelines, watching a deeply damaging inquiry that could engulf countless senior colleagues, will surely be impossible to tolerate. 

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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