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Two deputy presidents: what is Zuma really plotting?

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President Jacob Zuma during his opening address. (Mujahied Safodien, AFP)
President Jacob Zuma during his opening address. (Mujahied Safodien, AFP)

He also suggested that the person who comes second in the race for president of the ANC should automatically be the one deputy. The second deputy would then be elected through the present procedure, i.e. through nominations from branches and then voted on by delegates at the electoral conference in December.

The idea of two deputies is not completely new. Factions of the premier league and KZN have been talking about it lately. But what is extraordinary, is the manner in which the idea was put forward by the president.

It is important to understand that process trumps just about everything in the ANC. It is sacred and is the way that the ANC has been able to control its diverse membership for over a century.

ANC members (until recently) could for example discuss anything freely, as long as the right processes were followed. However, once a decision is made by the correct structure/s, no defiance or even public objection is countenanced.  

This is illustrated clearly in the current narrative around the vote of no-confidence. As numerous senior ANC leaders have pointed out: the ANC NEC has made a decision that all ANC MPs must vote against the motion and thus members of the ANC have no option but to follow the NEC directive. Their “so-called conscience” (to quote Fikile Mbalula) must come second to the NEC decision.

Process trumps everything.

Yet, the president of the ANC has suddenly raised this radical amendment to the ANC constitution without taking it through any of the required structures. It was clearly not discussed at the NEC, nor was it agreed to by any of the commissions at the policy conference. Even Baleka Mbete said: “I cannot readily agree on the proposal to make the loser the deputy, because I was hearing it for the first time.”  

Now if the national chairperson of the ANC was caught by surprise, who did the president consult with?

It was clear from the reaction of many in the audience (outside the premier league and KZN factions) that his proposal did not go down well. Some laughed openly at him, others whistled in surprise and many delegates were seen shaking their heads.

Like a father trying to convince a difficult child the president had to calm the crowds and said: “No, wait now. I am saying this is the right thing to do.”

So why do this? Why take the risk of doing something so un-ANC especially in the name of unity?

Many analysts argued in the immediate aftermath to the speech that it is a sign of weakness or concern that the Zuma faction might not win at the end of the year conference. “A desperate attempt to keep his ex-wife in,” someone said to me. But if there is one thing I have learnt about President Zuma, it is never to assume the obvious, because it is very rarely correct.

I believe it is more likely the exact opposite. He and his faction have shown no sign of panic or fear at all. Why would they? They have already “signed up” between 500 000 and 600 000 members in KZN. From everything I hear and see, they are convinced of victory come December.

However, the president will be aware that, if his camp wins outright, there is a very high likelihood that a large faction in the ANC and alliance might form a new party. This would naturally weaken the ANC significantly in the 2019 election. By suggesting this automatic second place, he ties Ramaphosa in and makes it very difficult for him to leave.

He is also putting the ball back into the Ramaphosa camp. By motivating that this is to ensure unity and get rid of the factionalism in the organisation, he is challenging them to come up with something better. If they don’t agree or if they oppose his proposal – they can only be branded as “anti-unity” or “pro-factionalism”.

It is the ultimate Machiavellian move by President Zuma. Not only does he play into the factionalism by not following processes, he uses the narrative of anti-factionalism to ensure victory for his camp. 

If this proposal is accepted and the Zuma faction wins, it will also be a way of humiliating Ramaphosa. Not only would it tie him into another five years of being a deputy (when he surely would want to leave), but he would be demoted to one of two deputies!

Of course it would also mean that Ramaphosa will not necessarily be the deputy president of the country. If the Zuma faction wins at the end of the year, one must assume that the second deputy president will most probably be from the Zuma camp. This would open the door for Zuma (or his successor) to “re-deploy” Ramaphosa and appoint a Zuma-lackey as deputy president of the country.

I have no doubt that this proposal by the president is a very dangerous move for both the ANC and South Africa. Hopefully as he goes around to branches to convince them of this idea, branches will reject it with the contempt it deserves.

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

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