Zuma's secret staying power for the long game

2017-04-03 12:18

A soccer game may come down to penalties, and while penalties are exciting, the game is 90 minutes long. Politics is a long game and not only dependent on shooting goals.

While no-one doubts that President Jacob Zuma is under pressure, it is a mistake for the opposition to believe his fall is imminent.

It is poor judgement and political naivety to believe that what you say on Twitter or Facebook will "Bring Zuma down".

Zuma is an old political operator who many have long underestimated. Remember Polokwane in 2007? Even the politically astute Thabo Mbeki did not see Zuma coming.

In his book The Dream Deferred, Mark Gevisser illustrates Mbeki's shock at the turnaround in the ANC as Zuma ascended to power.

Thanks to smartphone penetration and social media, many South African political dwarves believe that tweeting and posting on Facebook will remove Zuma.

Support networks

There are many significant flaws with this idea, but two stand out: In the first instance, Zuma himself spent many years as an anti-Apartheid operative in rural KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland (incidentally where he met Mbeki). During that time, he built a network of support in underground structures - in many cases friendships that continued well into the dawn of the new South Africa.

Zuma's support structures are nearly invisible to outsiders

President Jacob Zuma is a skilled political operator who should not be underestimated. (File)

Even during his time at Robben Island, Zuma rose through the ranks to become captain of the Rangers team.

Many of these relationships have helped Zuma create support structures in government and these relationships are nearly invisible to outsiders.

For example, though they didn't always see eye-to-eye, Zuma saw fit to appoint Dikgang Moseneke as Acting Chief Justice. That relationship goes to the time they were both on Robben Island.

The second flaw rests on the power base of the demographic.

Despite ANC Chief Jackson Mthembu calling for the entire ANC top six to step down, when the vote of no-confidence in Zuma's leadership came in up Parliament, Mthembu himself argued for Zuma to stay.

Electioneering season

The main opposition DA has made valiant attempts to have MPs vote Zuma out of power. Simply put, it's not going to happen.

Over the years, many in the ANC have described the organisation as a "broad church" which has seen many break-away organisations formed, even going back as far as the PAC in 1959.

But no ANC MP will seriously consider voting with the opposition to remove a sitting ANC president. The organisation doesn't work that way.

Instead, there will be furious negotiations behind the scenes with occasional public utterances.

What is going now has little to do with Zuma, but much more to do with positioning for the ANC elective conference in December 2017.

Journalist Max du Preez warned in January that the media (and South Africans at large) should beware the ANC propaganda war in the electioneering season.

In particular, by spewing ANC officials' statement without context many could see themselves becoming little more than "useful idiots" as the build-up to the elective conference gets underway.

If it is in your interest to take Zuma down, how do you do it?

Social media distraction

The ANC respects numbers - not little crowds on the side of the road trying to get attention - but stadiums of people.

Opposition needs to be organised in the heartland - KwaZulu-Natal which has become the centre of the ANC power base because of the way Zuma has surrounded himself with lackeys.

Urban support is distinctly different from rural support where the struggle to survive is perhaps more acute and where the sharp edge of government failure is felt. Much of the noise on social media and even opposition marches will be interpreted in ANC structures as noise - a distraction from the long game of the players' agenda. And like a street magician, while you are focused on the noise, the real trick slips through under your nose: Mining rights, nuclear power; large scale theft of resources could be played out during the cacophony of hacktivist protest.

One sore point for the ANC in government is the rumour mill that it used while an underground movement.

In many ways, the ANC operates an open, public channel as well as a more informal - to be polite - communications channel.

There have been instances where this informal channel has had more success in driving an agenda that the open channel.

During the negotiations in Codesa, the informal channel between players like Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa helped bring SA toward a negotiated rather than a violent settlement - and make no mistake, there was every risk of a violent settlement.

Even in the landing of the Gupta aeroplane at Waterkloof base was done along the lines of name-dropping and rumour without overt instructions given.

The opposition needs to exploit this weakness if it intends to work toward removing Zuma: It needs to organise and build lines of communication with individuals rather than massive public displays that cause MPs to draw a laarger around the ANC and Zuma.

A final a caution: Even if you are successful in scoring the Zuma removal goal, it doesn't mean that the next ANC leader waiting off-stage left will be any better - if, of course, the ANC wins in 2019.

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