'No more' - key ANC members turn on Zuma

"Beware the Ides of March, Mr President, lest you get your political sums badly wrong and find more than one Brutus waiting in the wings to plunge long political knives into your back." (Graphic: John McCann, M&G)

There are signs that key members of the ANC have turned, or will turn, against President Jacob Zuma.

Semiotically, this has been the most dramatic and significant start to a political year. From public protector Thuli Madonsela’s bright yellow “victory gown” she wore to the opening of Parliament days after President Jacob Zuma’s extraordinary capitulation at the Constitutional Court on Nkandla, to the sharply coded signals in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s magnificent budget speech, the telltale signs of political change have been sprinkled liberally over the events of the past month.

Sometimes political power will shift at a glacial pace. Sometimes it can kaleidoscope with devastating speed. Sometimes the tilt in the balance of power will be invisible to the naked eye; sometimes it will be obvious only to the connoisseur.

When Anwa Dramat, Robert McBride and Ivan Pillay took their seats in the front row of the visitors gallery for the State of the Nation address three weeks ago, seasoned political journalists sitting in the National Assembly’s press box immediately reached for their Twitter accounts. After all, from their former places of work at the Hawks, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the South African Revenue Service (Sars) respectively, each of these three men has been subject to vicious and unrelenting Zuma-led attacks on their attempts to investigate wrongdoing.

What brought them into danger was that they were getting far too close for comfort to their ultimate quarries: the friends and family of the president, and Zuma himself.

That ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte was sitting alongside the three exiled investigators was, therefore, even more significant. It signalled a potentially big shift in the ANC leadership – indicating that the party had turned, or was in the process of turning, against its leader.

In this regard, last Friday afternoon was even more revealing. As the power struggle between the president and his finance minister gathered pace, played out in a proxy war between Gordhan and Sars commissioner and Zuma placeman Tom Moyane, so ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe issued an unequivocal statement in support of Gordhan.

Mantashe’s power should not be underestimated. He is the ultimate political traffic warden inside and outside the ANC. How he decides to direct the flow of political traffic is influential.

And, as I have always maintained, because Mantashe views himself as first and foremost a servant of the ANC, if the moment came when he thought the balance of opinion in the organisation had tilted decisively against Zuma, then he himself would turn on a sixpence.

That moment may have come last week or perhaps earlier, on the dreaded “9/12”. Recall Mantashe’s curt statement that shocking evening on December 9 last year when asked about Zuma’s summary dismissal of the finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and his replacement with unknown backbencher Des van Rooyen: the ANC has nothing to say because it was not consulted, said the bluff former trade union leader and South African Communist Party (SACP) politburo member.

When pressed by journalists, Mantashe added, cryptically, words to the effect that sometimes silence can be a clear message.

There can be no doubt that he was furious with Zuma. And my sense of Mantashe is that he is still angry. He may even feel guilty that he and other left-of-centre members of the ANC leadership chose to back Zuma at Polokwane in 2007. They have now come to realise that, although Zuma gave them more space than Thabo Mbeki ever would, including a juicy range of Cabinet positions, the collateral damage caused by Zuma’s lack of political judgment, ideological vacuity, and dodgy friends and business “associates” is worse.

Which brings me to another revealing semiotic moment, this time of the purely linguistic variety. Halfway through a budget speech that showed extraordinary political leadership and courage, Gordhan, despite his earlier denials, did use the “P-word” – not “privatisation”, but “predator”.

For the uninitiated, the word might seem at best curious, at worst, obscure and confusing. To the connoisseur, it is what one might call a “trigger” word, drawn as it is from the leftist literature on revolutionary class struggle. In that literature, some of which was ventilated, ironically, by SACP leaders such as Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin – two of the ministerial beneficiaries of Zuma’s political largesse in the years after Polokwane – the notion of a comprador class that eats away at the revolutionary integrity of a political movement and adopts predatory conduct in respect of the use of state power (think tenderpreneurs and public procurement) was raised.

So, by use of that phrase, Gordhan was speaking truth to power: we know what is going on and now, finally, we are saying “no more”.

It represented a defiant throwing down of the gauntlet and a potential turning point. It was, therefore, an uplifting moment. Indeed, sitting in the press gallery, I had feelings of pride and optimism for the first time in a long while. It was a speech for which I have been waiting for a number of years. As such, it would be apt to assess Gordhan not just for his performance as minister of finance, but also as the figurehead or vanguard of a revival of what I like to call the moderate middle and sensible left of the ANC, because it is clear that he has considerable political backing from those parts of the party.

That they are now finding their voice is cause for positive thoughts. As one of their members pointed out to me last week, it would not be the first time that the ANC has revived itself and its progressive credentials.

Is there such a renaissance on the horizon? Much will clearly depend on how the power struggle between Zuma and the Gordhan-Mantashe-led part of the ANC plays out, which is inherently hard to predict. That, in turn, will filter down into the ANC’s national executive committee. The commonly held view is that the Zumists are still in the majority there. But that, too, may be changing, as individuals look further ahead and consider their own political futures. Having thrown so many loyal apparatchiks under the bus over Nkandla, Zuma may no longer be able to count on their fidelity.

Does this mean Zuma will be recalled by the ANC and that we will have another September 2008 moment, when Mbeki was recalled? It is unlikely that the ANC’s leadership will want such a messy thing – because, unlike Mbeki, Zuma is unlikely to go without a major fight, given the uncertainty over whether he will face corruption charges (the lawfulness of the decision to drop those charges in March 2009 is currently being considered by the high court in Pretoria).

There are big political calculations to be made on both sides. Push too hard, too early, and Zuma will have no choice but to fight back using all his instincts for survival and, no doubt, cause yet more collateral damage to the institutions and reputation of South Africa.

Equally, if Zuma does not cede important ground and grant Gordhan and his newfound political backers the concessions they need to run the government in the way that the tough economic times demand, then the ANC leadership may have to face up to the unpleasant task of removing him.

So, beware the Ides of March, Mr President, lest you get your political sums badly wrong and find more than one Brutus waiting in the wings to plunge long political knives into your back.

Richard Calland is a constitutional lawyer and political analyst.

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