Cyril must avoid a Zuma Sona

Cyril Ramaphosa.
Cyril Ramaphosa.

State of the nation address (Sona) or a motion of no confidence: these are the options that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete is considering. It follows a request by opposition leaders Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane.

They consider it a waste of time listening to a president whose party and the Parliament he intends addressing are hatching plans to remove him from office.

This is unprecedented. Never has the republic been in doubt over whether this democratic ritual – the Sona – will go ahead with less than a week left to the scheduled date, February 8. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Jacob Zuma’s tenure has been full of “firsts” that add up to an anomaly.

Besides its abnormality, this unusual moment is also revealing of what is going on within the newly elected ANC leadership. That we are even here goes against what has been happening since Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president. Subsequent developments suggested that Ramaphosa was either calling the shots or Zuma was bending over to please his counterpart at Luthuli House.

The strongest of such indications was Zuma conceding that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng appoint the chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, which he had resisted, insisting that it was his presidential prerogative. Even more suggestive were the terms of reference for the inquiry. Zuma wanted them broadened to pre-1994 to include individuals other than himself, his family and his proxies. In preferring this option, Zuma intended to dilute the focus on himself and have the commission drag on for years until the public interest dissipated. The length of time it took him to draft the terms – more than two weeks – shows he was resisting legal advice to limit them to Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations. It shouldn’t have taken more than three days to formulate the terms. Zuma eventually capitulated, formulating them just as the former public protector had intended.

Here’s the question though: If Zuma is really a lame-duck president, why do we have the uncertainty over when he’s leaving, or if he’s leaving at all? New ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe, one of Ramaphosa’s strongest backers, said it would be easy to get rid of Zuma when he’s no longer president of the party. But deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte has said Zuma is going nowhere.

I don’t doubt the dominant sense of impatience among most in the ANC executive to have Zuma gone. His delivery of the Sona, for one, would undercut the momentum that has built over the many changes that have taken place.

It would make a mockery of the Sona. There’s hardly anyone out there who still believes anything Zuma says. His credibility is at its lowest.

But, timing has complicated Zuma’s removal, calling for a cautious approach.

The ANC and government schedules have been packed: the party’s 106th birthday celebration, Ramaphosa’s visit to the World Economic Forum and the Cabinet lekgotla. All these activities were equally important.

Even if he wanted, Zuma wouldn’t have resigned while his successor was out of the country; nor would it have been easy for Ramaphosa to insist on firing Zuma and his ilk just as the planning for Sona got under way. The potential for disruption is massive.

While understandable, Ramaphosa’s careful approach has had unintended consequences. His detractors interpret it as weakness. They openly contradicted Ramaphosa. While in Davos, he reassured the world that plans to fire Zuma were afoot, but had to be carefully managed. Back home, Duarte was telling the public that Zuma would finish his term. With the impeachment proceedings, appearance before the commission and a trial over corruption all impending, Duarte must know that Zuma is unlikely to see through his term. Her statement can be defined only as a clear intent to display defiance at the new ANC president.

Her ally and ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule added to the defiance, telling a crowd in KwaZulu-Natal that Ramaphosa’s victory was a fluke. He urged his audience to work towards returning the party to its true leaders in five years.

Such statements constitute a direct challenge to Ramaphosa’s authority. Statements by an ANC president are akin to the party’s official position. That’s why the president of the party is the last to speak at national executive committee (NEC) meetings, a closing that is never contradicted. The only reason why the duo challenged their president is that they’re emboldened. This stems from Ramaphosa’s indecisiveness to tell Zuma to leave. He probably has the support of the three other leaders in the top six, which gives him the majority. The NEC has mandated them to deal with Zuma’s exit. He won’t resign voluntarily. They have to force his resignation or pass a motion of no confidence.

It has now become difficult for Ramaphosa to continue on his guarded path. The defiance by Duarte and Magashule cast doubt on his authority.

Rather than being a function of prudence, Zuma’s delivery of the Sona will appear as a sign of weakness on Ramaphosa’s part. It will mean that defiant elements like Duarte and Magashule wield more influence than the president of the party himself.

An appearance of weakness is not good for a new leader with a far-reaching agenda for change. It emboldens resistant elements within the ranks. In the absence of a prolonged absence of decisive action, others, who would otherwise have been cowed to showing their defiance, will be encouraged into open defiance. That might erupt into open rebellion.

Once that happens, reforms will be delayed, as Ramaphosa’s attention will be consumed by putting out fires. The party will, in turn, be inwardly focused instead of dealing with the major challenges facing the country. That would make this ANC no different from Zuma’s, which is the surest way to lose even more votes next year.

There’s nothing wrong with a measured approach when dealing with a sensitive issue. A well thought-out plan optimises positive results. But, that mostly happens if one has control over most of the variables at play and there’s hardly any executive decision that doesn’t have a potential downside. In the case of the ANC, Ramaphosa doesn’t have total influence over the top six. Duarte and Magashule are determined to resist him and Zuma has planned presidential trips beyond March.

Ramaphosa can’t possibly hope that the defiant trio will toe the line.

It’s up to him now to exercise leadership.

That includes taking tough decisions and forcing everyone else to fall in line. Zuma may well refuse to resign voluntarily. That would mean pushing ahead with the vote of no confidence, even if it means deferring the Sona.

Caution is meaningless if it suggests weakness. Only in the context of unchallenged authority does a thoughtful manner yield the desired results. Stamping one’s authority should be the priority.

Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg

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