Current developments within the ANC where President Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters appear to have succeeded in putting former president Jacob Zuma backers into a tight corner are a stark reminder of how unpredictable politics can be.
When not so long ago key Zuma supporters such as ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo and former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede, made statements perceived as veiled attacks on Ramaphosa, an impression was created that it was Zuma and not Ramaphosa in charge of the party.
Zuma supporter and mayor of the Dihlabeng Municipality in the Free State, Lindiwe Makhalema, took things to another level when she branded Ramaphosa a “sell-out” on a Facebook post.
It was not only the general public who were misled into believing that Ramaphosa and his supporters within the party were helpless in the face of the show of force by Zuma’s backers; political analysts were equally duped.
Each time a key Zuma supporter made a statement interpreted as an attack on Ramaphosa, political analysts would cite it as further evidence that Ramaphosa and his supporters were powerless.
Journalists made careers out of covering the latest performance by members of the Zuma camp.
But, fast-track to 2021, the tables are being turned. Mahumapelo has just been slapped with a five-year suspension from the ANC and ordered to step aside as an MP.
Several of Zuma’s supporters, including Magashule, have been ordered to step down from their positions, as Ramaphosa supporters in the national executive committee (NEC) push for the implementation of the step-aside rule.
A former Free State premier, Magashule, who is regarded as the face of the Zuma camp within the ANC, is facing criminal charges in connection with his role in the provincial government’s controversial R255 million asbestos tender which was pushed through in 2014 when he was premier.
Zuma, who made it fashionable within his camp to attack Ramaphosa and those in the party perceived to be close to the president, is facing challenges of his own. Apart from the criminal charges he faces in connection with the arms deal in the 1990s, Zuma is also facing a two-year jail sentence for defying a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry.
Indeed, the Zuma camp, which at one point was viewed as the de facto leadership of the ANC, is on the back foot.
The situation which the Zuma supporters find themselves in is not dissimilar to that of former president Thabo Mbeki’s supporters, who shortly after his defeat in the 2007 ANC presidential elections, attempted to undermine the authority of the winner, Zuma.
Like Zuma supporters now at odds with Ramaphosa, the Mbeki backers initially put up a strong resistance from within the party. When the Mbeki supporters eventually realised that Zuma was too strong for them, some were able to swallow their pride and beg for forgiveness, while others such as then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, chose to leave the political scene.
Other Mbeki supporters continued to fight Zuma, albeit from outside the party. Zuma critics such as former Defence minister Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota and former Gauteng premier Mbanzima Shilowa, resolved to form a rival political party, the Congress of the People.
When shortly after his election as ANC president in the party’s 2007 elective conference Zuma announced that like former president Nelson Mandela he would serve only one term as president, his pledge was viewed as a sign that the Mbeki supporters were gaining the upper hand in the party’s struggles.
However, it soon turned out that Zuma’s promise to serve one term was part of his ploy to calm Mbeki supporters.
After dismantling the Mbeki network within the party, Zuma went on to accept a second term, only to be forcibly removed by Ramaphosa’s supporters a few months before the end of his second five-year term.
Now that Zuma’s supporters, who since Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president in 2017 have been challenging the president’s authority are losing the battle, will they stay put, swallow their pride and beg Ramaphosa’s forgiveness or will they form a rival political party?
Indeed, politics is unpredictable.