It is a truism that the road to the presidency of the ANC and beyond that to being president of the country is a long one.
In Dlamini Zuma’s favour for the top job were the high number of votes she garnered to serve on the ANC national executive committee in 2012. At the September 2015 conference the Women’s League declared that the party was ready for a female president. It was axiomatic that they implied this was to be Dlamini Zuma.
From that moment on, the campaign for a female president became synonymous with her campaign, despite National Assembly speaker and ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete’s and Lindiwe Sisulu’s moves in the same direction. Dlamini Zuma denied running this campaign from the AU, yet she would be home every five or six weeks for public events. From March 2017, she started beating the campaign drum. By July she was in full voice, telling the Catholic African Women’s Union in Mariann-hill, KwaZulu-Natal, that as women comprised ‘the majority of the population’ and produced the rest of the population, ‘why can’t we lead?’ For men in the rural areas where tradition dies hard, there was every reason why women shouldn’t lead.
And then there was the question of Jacob Zuma.
If the marriage was unhappy, their relationship since the divorce had been civil, even warm at times.
For instance, in 2003, some five years after the divorce, Nelson Mandela hosted a birthday party to which South Africa’s senior politicians and big international names (such as former US president Bill Clinton, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, businessperson Richard Branson and celebrity Oprah Winfrey) were invited. Dlamini Zuma attended with Jacob Zuma and their children. While some reports speculated that this was an attempt to revive their marriage, there was no reconciliation. But it was a public display of friendship.
Then in 2007 she campaigned with Mbeki for the top positions in the ANC, but when it became clear that he was being ousted she threw in her lot with Zuma. Her initial tethering to Mbeki could have been out of principle, but her switching sides proved that she could abandon her political seniors when necessity dictated. Switching allegiances was a shrewd move that has kept her alive politically. More to the point, it garnered her press accolades as her ‘own person’. As a commentator wrote at the time, ‘The fact that Dlamini Zuma stood against her ex-husband and father of her children in a fierce power battle is testament to the fact that she is her own person, who does not make decisions according to sentiment. She has long recovered from the bitterness of the divorce and, apart from parenting issues of their four daughters, she relates to Zuma just like any other ANC minister in cabinet.’
When, in 2009, Zuma was elected president for the first time by Parliament, Dlamini Zuma hugged him intimately and was seen to whisper in his ear. But then, she had campaigned with him in the run-up to the election and at Ingwavuma, near the Swazi border, where they had drawn a crowd of about twenty thousand people.
Yet it was not always sweetness and light. In 2012, at a packed breakfast briefing in Bloemfontein’s President Hotel, Zuma made his former wife stand up so that he could congratulate her on being elected chair of the AU Commission. He had been re-elected as ANC president the previous day and his tone was condescending and patronising as he suggested that maybe she would be the next president. Dlamini Zuma stood, looking awkward.
In her election to the NEC in the days before, she won more votes than any other member. Her tally even surpassed her husband’s. In a similar vein, when she received the South African of the Year award from Zuma in 2015, he chose to very formally shake her hand, whereas others at the award ceremony, broadcast on ANN7, a television channel owned by the Gupta family, hugged and kissed her.
In between Dlamini Zuma had defended Zuma regarding the reports of his spending public funds to upgrade his homestead in Nkandla. She told voters during a walkabout in Clermont, near Durban, that ordinary people were more concerned about service delivery than Nkandla.
But distancing herself from Zuma when she felt it was necessary hasn’t been that easy. She might be divorced from Zuma, but in a traditionalist society such as that of the Zulus, once a man and a woman are married, the bond is permanent, especially when there are children. When Zuma sat by her side in the front row at a thanksgiving service for the St Catherine’s Roman Catholic church congregation, this suggested intimacy to the congregation. After all, the church was in Dlamini Zuma’s hometown. When Zuma spoke warmly of her and stressed their close connection by saying ‘I know her personally, she’s not just a comrade’, the innuendo was plain to some. With a wink, one of the congregants interpreted Zuma’s remark as sexually suggestive, and it played into the gossip that they still shared a bed.
The irony was that while endorsement from her former husband was politically advantageous in some circles, such as the conservative provinces of the North West and Free State where the idea of a female president was anathema, association with Zuma was also toxic. Repeatedly in her campaigning, she told supporters: ‘I am my own woman and I have worked hard to be here.’ Or: ‘No amount of patriarchy will stop me from serving my people.’ Or, as she told a crowd in Ixopo near her home base: ‘We must not allow people to say you’re so and so’s lover. A comrade is a comrade.’
Likewise she had to remind reporters and those at public gatherings that she had divorced Zuma nineteen years previously when she was minister of health with a track record in government and he was in the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal. ‘When you are divorced, you don’t have to be enemies,’ she told a reporter. ‘But I am not his wife.’
All the same, the proximity was hard to escape. She might be a medical doctor, she might be one of the longest-serving cabinet ministers (and was so even before Zuma became president), but the Zuma name dogged her to the point where she came to wonder if people thought she could only succeed with his support. She felt that fellow comrades and women were out to discredit her and judge her. ‘Their agenda is clear: women can’t lead. There has to be a man behind them,’ she told an interviewer.
As if to support her conspiracy theory, the Sunday Times published a story titled ‘The Nkandla home where Nkosazana has spent a lot of time in the past two years’ on 29 January 2017 – the same day that she bade farewell to the AU heads of state at a summit in Addis Ababa. She duly complained to the press ombudsman, who ruled the headline wrong but that the rest of the story was fair.
In her submission to the ombudsman, through her attorney, she denied the frequency of her visits to Nkandla, that she had ever stayed there at night, and that she had a house in the compound. ‘What is published is a bizarre story that an African woman, despite divorcing her husband to whom she had been married in terms of the Civil Law, remains in the claws of the ex-husband in the name of polygamy. Worst of all, an innuendo of adultery is suggested because not even a customary union is touted or established by the faceless interviewees.’
There was also an allegation of a reconciliation with Zuma in the interests of being his successor. This the attorney called ‘a mischievous view’. Of course the allegation fed into the speculation that Zuma’s real motive for wanting his wife to succeed him as president was because he believed she would not prosecute the father of her children – or any of his family members – for corruption. Zuma could still face 783 charges of corruption regarding his dealings with his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, if the case was reopened, or there could be fresh charges connected to his relationship with the Gupta family.
Dlamini Zuma had not publicly defended her husband or any of his allegedly corrupt dealings. She had also kept his friends and business associates, especially the Gupta family, at arm’s length. However, Zuma had asked controversial public relations company Bell Pottinger to arrange favourable publicity for her, which apparently ran into millions of rands and was paid for by the Guptas. In an anonymous but credible report on Bell Pottinger’s dealings in South Africa, a former employee said that Zuma asked for communications assistance ‘to create an environment which would be advantageous to enabling his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to replace him as leader of the ANC when the time was right’. Dlamini Zuma neither confirmed nor denied this.
There were also rumours that her website (nkosazana.com) was developed and run by Bell Pottinger. The identity of the real owners of the site was disguised. However, after Bell Pottinger gave notice in April 2017 that they would no longer be working for the Guptas, following negative publicity, the site was not updated for a few months.
Despite the attempts by Dlamini Zuma to keep the Zuma faction at arm’s length, it was Zuma’s supporters who organised many of her public appearances in the run-up to the ANC 2017 conference. She was endorsed by various groups, including the Youth League, the Women’s League and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association. ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Sihle Zikalala, North West premier Supra Mahumapelo and Free State premier Ace Magashule also backed her. The impression was that Zuma would end up pulling the strings while she was a puppet president.
In the months before the conference she might have been playing along because it was her safest bet to becoming president, or, perhaps, she truly believed in Zuma’s integrity. It was also possible that her children were uppermost in her thoughts. They stood firmly behind their parents, and she wouldn’t want to disappoint them.
Even if Dlamini Zuma was not a puppet, she could find herself reaching the top with a heavy political debt to a network of organisers and leaders who, like her husband, were better at beating the system than playing by the rules. Even if she wanted to stand up to them, it could, in the end, be a near-impossible task.
* This extract was taken from Woman in the Wings, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and the Race for the Presidency, written by Carien du Plessis, published by Penguin Random House.