/ 6 May 2008

Slipping, sliding and climbing

If there was ever a period that so ably demonstrated the febrile nature of politics it has been the past week or two. As Jacob Zuma strode into Downing Street after having met with the British prime minister, looking surprisingly at ease in the media glare, Thabo Mbeki was quietly meeting King Mswati III which, with all due respect to the Swazi monarch, pretty much sums up the state of play: Zuma on the ascendant, Mbeki on the slide.

And when as ardent a free marketer as Ivan Fallon reports approvingly on Zuma’s European tour with as generous and soft focus a piece as that which appeared in last Sunday’s Independent, you know the business establishment is increasingly confident that Zuma will be as amenable to its interests as the Mbeki regime.

It is quite extraordinary how rapidly the wheel of perception, as much as of fortune, has rotated in recent weeks.

There is still considerable disquiet: the doubts about Zuma’s judgement, his ethics and his flip-flopping approach to policy remain. But by telling the middle class what they want to hear he is slowly beginning to reassure them.

It seems that Zuma may share Ronald Reagan’s ability to keep some things simple, which can sometimes be a great virtue in politics. It certainly can help with public diplomacy — the paradox being that by saying less you can sometimes appear to stand for more.

On issues such as Zimbabwe and HIV/Aids, Zuma will aim to signal an uncomplicated approach as a welcome contrast to Mbeki’s intricate convolutions, even if on crime it is as crude as ”shoot the bastards”.

Zuma is many things, but he cannot easily be described as cerebral. Chalk to Mbeki’s cheese, the question is whether the raw political wit, with which Zuma is apparently well endowed, is sufficient to make up for what a large number of the ANC’s illuminati have with withering condescension regarded as a lack of intellect.

Zuma’s pride, in turn, is pricked by what he considers to be old-fashioned snobbishness. This is what his recent spat with Kader Asmal was all about. Like George W Bush, Zuma has made a political career out of appearing to be anti-intellectual as well as anti-establishment — 100% Zulu Boy and all that — though whether it is a badge of strategic convenience or that of a genuine outsider is far from certain.

Whichever it is, influential members of the elite are moving towards rather than away from him. Tokyo Sexwale showed his hand earlier than most, mimicking the fund-raising exploits of wealthy individuals in the United States primaries by oiling the wheels of Zuma’s anti-Mbeki campaign last year.

Now Cyril Ramaphosa has been persuaded to leave, metaphorically, the comfort of his farm to consider a more explicit return to public life. He and Zuma have met several times in recent weeks, which could prove to be very significant, as Ramaphosa’s allure to both national and international investor confidence is significant.

So, having built one coalition to beat Mbeki at Polokwane — based on discontent with the incumbent rather than unreserved enthusiasm for the challenger — Zuma is now busy constructing an entirely different alliance of forces, drawing on a wider pool from within the very establishment that he was at pains to present himself and his supporters as having been excluded from during his ANC leadership campaign.

The next period could turn this trend into a second Zuma-tsunami — this time to the Union Buildings. Frene Ginwala’s inquiry into the conduct of suspended head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Vusi Pikoli, finally reaches its head with hearings next week. Assuming a deal has not been done that settles the matter ”out of court” one can imagine that evidence from Pikoli could be highly damaging — more so to Mbeki, but perhaps also to Zuma, depending on how much light is shed on the factional usurpation of state authority by both sides during their ferocious succession contest.

The release, not before time, of the full Kampepe Commission report could serve to delay or hasten the demise of the Scorpions.

Then the Constitutional Court is due to hand down its judgement on the admissibility of documents obtained by the Scorpions’s raids on Zuma’s home. Although it could go the other way, a declaration of unconstitutionality by the court is hardly likely to do the ”Save the Scorpions” campaign much good.

Combine these three events and it is conceivable that the NPA is sufficiently winded that it loses its

stomach for the legal battle and decides to withdraw the corruption charges against Zuma.

These are tributaries to the bigger river that is now carrying Zuma and his raft of increasingly merry brothers. As others join, space diminishes. Big boys such as Sexwale and Ramaphosa take up a lot of room; leaner comrades such as Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi may get elbowed off, lest the vessel sink, while pivotal courtiers, such as Zweli Mkhize, decline to budge.

As we watch the intriguing comings and goings and a freshly constituted establishment coagulates, we would do well to remember that the margin between glorious triumph and ignominious defeat is getting thinner by the day.