The ANC's centre cannot hold without Zuma

President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

News Analysis

One admission stood out in the ANC’s spin this week – it said President Jacob Zuma’s resignation would tear the party apart.

There was also the perceptible shift from the days when secretary-general Gwede Mantashe ripped into the judiciary as “counter-revolutionary”. This time around, he praised the courts, despite a rather damning ruling by the highest court in the land against the governing party.

In a truly united party, when the leader steps down, the deputy (in this case a capable Cyril Ramaphosa) would simply step up to fill his shoes.

This should be especially true for the ANC if its claims of the party being bigger than individuals were more than mere ideals.

In a party split down the middle in more or less equal factions, however, things are more likely to fall apart.

The ANC still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, from the time when the bruising battle between Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki saw the latter’s recall in 2008 – and the formation of a new opposition party, the Congress of the People.

Zuma and Mantashe were both there at the National Executive Committee meeting in Kempton Park to witness this.

Asked at the Luthuli House press conference on Friday night whether there was unanimity amongst the ANC’s top six earlier in the day about Zuma not resigning (a tweet from Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said Ramaphosa led a charge for Zuma to go), Mantashe responded so swiftly that he interjected.

“There was unanimity,” he said. “Malema’s tweets were ‘manufactured stories’.”

This unanimity doesn’t mean all six officials are on the same page in their liking for Zuma, but they’re pretty much all aware of the damage a recall can do to the party.

Mantashe said the immediate reaction by many after the Constitutional Court judgment on Thursday was that Zuma should resign.

The court ruled that he violated the Constitution and should pay back the money for non-security upgrades to his Nkandla home.

Calling for a recall was the same as “calling for the ANC to tear itself apart”, he said.

Speaking to journalists who have been in the field a while, he said: “I would have imagined that you have witnessed our previous experience. So my view is that opposition forces are making that call knowing that it is a call for the ANC to tear itself apart,” he said.

What this means is that, despite the party’s best efforts at reconciliation and its grand claims of unity at last year’s National General Council, serious rifts still exist in the party, some of these over a decade old. The supposed unifier called Zuma has been anything but.

Mantashe’s remark on opposition parties was also telling. Back in 2008 Malema was amongst those who led a charge that created the momentum for Mbeki’s recall. It made him so powerful that he became a fearless critic within the party – until he was subsequently kicked out.

At a press conference after the Constitutional Court judgment on Thursday, Malema’s narrative was one of “I told you so”. It was the EFF that brought the case to the Constitutional Court and Malema wanted to make it clear that the charge against Zuma was in capable and still-powerful hands.

The ANC, for its part, however, would never want to be seen to be giving in to his or any other opposition party’s demands.

Mantashe said: “Let me explain it further by saying it would be a sick organisation that would take action just because the main opposition party is calling for it, or the EFF is calling for it. There is no party that works that way, because if it works that way there would be no party left,” he said.

The ANC was still open to more discreet engagements. Mantashe called on “all sectors of society that are unhappy” to talk to the ANC around a table, rather than in the media.

Is this his way of calling on more quiet dissent, away from the cameras, that would enable a Zuma recall without it seeming like an opposition victory?

Or could it be the ANC’s way of mobilising adversity into an elections campaign opportunity?

Very likely, it is a way for the ANC to humble itself, in the same way Zuma humbled himself when he appeared in a televised address to the nation an hour earlier.

It is a far cry from the time when Mantashe – in Zuma’s defence – attacked the integrity of the judges themselves.

This time he praised the damning Concourt finding as a “well-written and extremely balanced judgment, which is testament to the fact that the Constitution of our country, adopted in 1996, truly remains an anchor, shield and lodestar of our nation”.

That could also have been Ramaphosa’s hand, as he was one of the lead architects of the Constitution back in the early 90s.

Mantashe omitted to answer journalists’ questions on whether he still had faith in Zuma, but he did say: “The ANC is convinced that there was no intention on the part of the President and ANC Members of Parliament to deliberately act inconsistently with the Constitution. We have thus noted, welcome and appreciate the apology by the president to the nation this evening.”

Perhaps there’s been some kind of a shift after all.        

Mantashe has famously said that in cases of discipline the ANC was like an elephant: slow to start moving, but once it starts going it is decisive and fierce.

Could it be that the elephant has stirred? And how long before it gains enough impetus to do what many reckon would have been the right thing for Zuma to have done on Friday night?

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