Clash of the titans: Who is winning the Zuma vs Gordhan war?

The “hot” war has abated, for now. But a cold war grips the country in a vice. A head of government pitted against his finance minister. President Jacob Zuma versus Pravin Gordhan. This titanic struggle for power is about who runs government.

It is a question that this column posed on February 5 as being the key question to dominate the first quarter of the year.

At that point, with Gordhan freshly mandated, he was apparently unsackable due to the support of key politicians, such as ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

Gordhan also clearly secured a huge role in the writing of the State of the Nation address. It looked as if there could only one winner.

After all, the treasury holds the purse strings and with a defiant, ethical minister at the helm, how could Zuma possibly continue to get his way, especially with the wounds of his destructive December 9 decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene still oozing pus? The president seemed weakened and wounded. How could he possibly fight back?

Especially when, in relatively short order, extraordinarily specific and damaging evidence came from respected sources – the deputy minister of finance, Jonas Mcebisi, and former director general of government communications, Temba Maseko – which revealed the extent of the congealing embrace between the president and the Guptas.

At the same time, the Constitutional Court held that Zuma had violated the Constitution over his failure to take the remedial action required by the public protector and then, the high court ruling that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) decision in April 2009 to discontinue serious corruption charges against Zuma was irrational and should be set aside (now subject to an application for leave to appeal by the NPA).

In any “normal” democracy, each one of these items – from the decision to fire Nene onwards — would have been more than enough to compel the resignation of the political leader concerned.

But South Africa remains, in this sense, “abnormal”, distorted by the fact that the true locus of power remains at the heart of the ruling party rather than in the wider populace. Hence, as we should all have learnt a long time ago, this is not a man who goes easily: Zuma can only ever be written off at one’s peril.

Why? Another question that is perpetually posed: How does Zuma do it? The answer lies in the composition of the ANC’s national executive committee, as plenty of others have surmised in recent times.

It is, unfortunately, an inescapable conclusion. The ANC decides who goes on its list of candidates for election. It, through Parliament, decides who will be president – not the court, regardless of the depth of any constitutional infidelity.

There has been plenty of lazy analysis and supposition on this issue. It is assumed that Zuma retains “control”of the NEC but on the basis of circumstantial evidence – the fact of Zuma’s survival, which is a circular, unauthentic and thoroughly impeachable argument.

It is not so clear-cut. When I look at the list of 86 members of the NEC, I can point to 28 names that I would regard as nonloyalists, as people of principle, or who have axes to grind with Zuma and who would readily remove him given half a decent chance. Yet, I accept it is not the majority view.

So the balance of power remains with Zuma, as Mantashe too has had to accept and build into his own Machiavellian calculations.

But nor is change a million miles away. The ground can still shift, and fairly quickly when it does.

So, where will it all end? Recognising, as we now must, that this is a war, not a battle: What is the state of play? Who will win?

It is the question I am asked everywhere I go around the world.

Investors hold off when they think that key institutions of governance — the treasury, the South African Revenue Service, the Reserve Bank — are under threat from what Vishwas Satgar calls an “authoritarian populist” president.

If it were Wimbledon, it would be two sets all.

Gordhan won the first, by imposing himself and his reform agenda on the State of the Nation address and in his politically brilliant budget speech.

Zuma fought back by surviving an initial attempt to contain him through the ANC NEC, and then by using his loyalists on the committee to close down the Mantashe-led “Gupta inquiry”.

Despite the fact that Maseko and Mcebisi had courageously made statements, Mantashe was forced to effectively say there is insufficient evidence and so there is nothing to be done.

Mantashe’s own power and threat to Zuma were pushed into retreat — at least for the time being, although my hunch is that he will end up with the last laugh next year.

Two sets to one to Zuma. But then Gordhan won the ratings agency downgrade reprieve. Two sets all.

Can Gordhan continue to survive and succeed, as much for his necessary reform agenda as anything else?

And, what next? Will the August 3 local government elections mark the end of the road? No. I certainly do not buy into the widely held view that the ANC is biding its time and will dispense with Zuma’s services after a bad election result.

Even if the ANC loses its majority in any one of Nelson Mandela Bay, Pretoria or Johannesburg (and after the fiasco of recent days in Pretoria, there are increased chances of this) Zuma will deftly deflect the bad result by blaming the provincial executives in those two provinces for failing to show unity by backing the leadership.

Where Zuma remains strong, the ANC will continue to look strong.

So we must accept that unless something else even worse emerges about Zuma (which given his growing track record is entirely possible) he will survive until at least December 2017, when the ANC’s national elective conference happens.

Asked as I constantly am to put percentages to these scenarios, I would now put the figure for Zuma hanging on until the end of next year at 60%.

Whereupon the question will turn to an even more excruciating possibility: the Putin option – whereby Zuma is prevailed upon, more by his supporters and cronies who all depend on him being in power so that they can drive the state car from the backseat, to go for a third term.

It is highly doubtful that even an ANC that appears to have lost its political and ethical bearings as much as this one will have the appetite for such an option – but do not write this man off.

There is a 20% possibility that Zuma will go for, and get, a third term as ANC president.

Another highly relevant question that is persistently posed is this: Is Gordhan up for the fight? Yes, he is, undoubtedly. He is showing extraordinary, patriotic leadership. But it is costing him a lot in emotional energy, as we have seen.

Of all the most bizarre, and saddening things that have unfolded during the appalling Zuma years, perhaps the worst was the statement made by Gordhan a few weeks ago.

He appealed to South Africans to be ready to defend the good men and women of the treasury, and the institution itself against a possible “subversion of democracy”.

And, in this sense, all principled, right-thinking people should indeed be prepared and ready to act in defence of Gordhan and his colleagues.

It is depressing to have to cast it in such black-and-white, melodramatic terms, but right now, given the balance of forces within the ANC, they represent the most effective bulwark against the forces of darkness.

For this is a government at war with itself — at the most foolish and inconvenient time.

A descent into a Brazilian spiral of economic decline, which will hurt the poorest and vulnerable the most, is now a distinct possibility.

It is a delicate time in a difficult year.

South Africa has a president fighting against his people and their interests — a truly mind-boggling state of affairs.

And the outcome is far from certain, but with some very clear milestones on the road ahead, which will signal the future direction of travel, and which will require careful and vigilant attention. It really is make-or-break time.

Richard Calland’s new book, Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next 30, will be published later this year


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