Zuma's wildcard play can backfire

Oudpres. Jacob Zuma het skynbaar nog heelwat steun in die geledere van die ANC. Foto: Leon Sadiki
Oudpres. Jacob Zuma het skynbaar nog heelwat steun in die geledere van die ANC. Foto: Leon Sadiki

Jacob Zuma's re-entry into the public political domain occurs simultaneously with his new love for Twitter. These events are not devoid of connection, writes Daniel Silke.

Political retirees can be pretty pesky. They have time on their hands. They are looking for ways to stay relevant. And, some are looking for ways to stay out of jail. Enter Jacob Zuma, the former president who simply never goes away.

In fact, the 2019 election campaign has been latched upon, by Zuma, as an opportunity for some type of political rehabilitation but with more nuanced subtexts that would impress even the most Machiavellian amongst us.

Cyril Ramaphosa's narrow victory of just 179 votes was always going to weigh him down. This is especially true in KwaZulu-Natal, the regional heartland of Zuma and a large repository of ANC votes.

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For Ramaphosa – seeking an enhanced national mandate – keeping this province relatively happy meant acquiescing to a heightened role for Zuma during the election campaign. But what Ramaphosa didn't bargain for is a Zuma popping up everywhere beyond his more limited regional mandate.

From Twitter to Limpopo, the former president has regained a sense of purpose as he sniffs an opportunity. By engaging vigorously in the campaign, Zuma re-engages with South Africa. Discredited as he may be, he can still use the ANC as a vehicle to not only drum up support for the party but still link his name to the positive campaign message of garnering ANC votes.

Secondly, Zuma's use of the campaign allows him to draw closer to the prevailing forces within the ANC. He may find this difficult in party structures, yet his national name and stature (as vilified as it might be) still allows him to assume a position out of proportion to what should be a much more "retiring" status within the party. In this way, Zuma may regard himself as "back-in-action" playing a leadership role and thereby able to regain factional support wherever possible.

Of course, the key question is why does he need to do this? Why not just retire and be an "elder stateman" rather than an active campaigner? There is a confluence of possible reasons as to why you can't keep this Zuma down.

Zuma's re-entry into the public political domain occurs simultaneously with his new love for Twitter. These events are not devoid of connection. Twitter allows Zuma to put forward his view of the world and allows his contribution to South Africa – in his eyes – to be told in his words only. Unfiltered and devoid of journalistic (or analytic) derision, Jacob Zuma can speak in his tongue. How similar this all is to Donald Trump who for years has well understood the need to circumvent the press and present his view directly to the American people.

Whilst direct access to the public is important, its also important to build a case for yourself in the wake of criticism. And that's what Zuma is doing. This is especially relevant within a backdrop of serious legal questions still unresolved that could lead either to prosecution or financial ruin.

Zuma is therefore building sympathy by participating as facilely as he can. And, he is able to speak directly to South Africans hoping that over time, his misdemeanours will be diluted in the public eye. This is critical should he require assistance from President Ramaphosa and the broader ANC in terms of any possible pardon or eventual deal.

The more Zuma is seen as back in some aspect of the campaign; the more he is tolerated on public platforms; the more he seems to speak as a first-rung campaign messenger, the more he ingratiates himself with segments of the ANC – and those will be important segments when Zuma finds he needs favours in future.

Part of this is an attempt to turn the criticism of his past role as president into something more positive – akin to building some type of legacy. In particular, Zuma's very telling rebuttal of Ramaphosa's recent Davos-based utterances suggesting that his term had been "nine wasted years" smacks of a desire to hammer home a message that obfuscates the negatives and promotes the positive.

Of course, there may be other internal ANC games at play. Possibly the rump of the Zuma faction still want him around. Not only as a more "radical" conscience on Ramaphosa but to further their own ends in keeping the factional tensions alive whilst Ramaphosa finds his feet. It could be some sort of check-and-balance on Ramaphosa aided by those always close to the former President and still in senior positions within the ANC.

Jacob Zuma is therefore fast becoming one of the key wildcards in the ANC's 2019 election campaign. And in a sense, President Ramaphosa will find that should this continue, it will serve to undermine his message.

Ramaphosa should be challenged to go to KwaZulu-Natal and, on a public platform, denounce the last decade as lost years rather than speak from Davos on this issue. It would hardly seem that he has the political courage to denounce the Zuma years in Zuma's own back-yard.

The ANC has always been a party that has been able to apply – with remarkable success – astute double-speak depending on the constituency addressed. For Ramaphosa though, a tipping point is coming. He now has to make a choice. Is Zuma regarded as a liability for the purposes of talking to a foreign audience or the business community or is he an asset when it comes to campaigning in Zuma strong-holds within South Africa?

For all the bluster from Zuma himself, it is time for Ramaphosa himself to really come clean on this. The Zuma years were clearly a disaster for South Africa and any defence of this by the ANC – even in selected parts of the country – raises the question of whether the ANC can really transform itself now and in the future.

Making a choice on Zuma is a litmus test for the bigger, more existential economic and governance issues that continue to plague South Africa.

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.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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