He is as happy as a lion is President Jacob Zuma.
Not my words but those of a seasoned government minister, said to me in reference to Julius Malema and before the president’s State of the Nation address.
Presumably, the generally positive reaction to the speech will have further improved the president’s mood as he begins a tricky year that will determine whether or not he will get a second five-year term in the Union Buildings.
Content-wise, the speech was good; in the economics cluster, Zuma’s administration is beginning to cohere. It was inexcusably weak on education but otherwise it responded well to many of the nation’s most pressing concerns.
Moreover, it offered a clear strategy: a state-led infrastructure programme that, if successful, will act as a pivot to job-creating economic development, and which seeks to address many long-held complaints by industry.
Presentation-wise, it was Zuma’s least-bad State of the Nation address. If not purring, then the lion was at least prowling a little in his cage. There were thinly veiled threats (to the teachers’ unions not to block performance monitoring; to Eskom not to put prices up too much) offered in the style in which the president apparently engages with his ministers: ‘You will be achieving X by next year, won’t you?” he will ask them, accompanied by his famous deep-throated chuckle.
In the press gallery, one writer, missing Mbeki’s turns of phrase, asked for ‘just one line of poetry”. He was to be disappointed in that respect. Outside, afterwards, a left-of-centre government minister noted that ‘these speeches are actually better without the poetry”.
Chacun à son goût (to each his own taste). Or, as my Lancastrian father might put it: ‘You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
But what now? In an ANC national conference year there are no certainties. Having dealt with Malema with his customary adroitness, Zuma is far stronger than he was a year ago.
Malema was probably the only significant threat and, without him on the scene to shake things up — to create the necessary disturbance that would unsettle the political balance of forces within the ANC, to catalyse opposition and to construct an anti-Zuma campaign of adequate velocity — it is hard to see how any challenger can mount a sufficiently powerful coalition to take on the incumbent at Mangaung in December.
Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, ducks and dives in the undergrowth, declining to raise his head above the parapet. He knows that, were he to do so prematurely, Zuma would chop it off.
But he also knows that this year probably represents his last opportunity. By 2017 the next generation will be pressing hard at the gate. Some of them have what Motlanthe may lack: the necessary ambition and ruthlessness.
Even Motlanthe’s supporters, on the left and in the centre, suspect that he may not quite have what it takes — and they have, or are, fast reaching the conclusion that their future lies with another five years of Zuma.
While they know Motlanthe is a more considered, thoughtful man, it is this considerateness that may be the primary obstacle to his advancement. In politics, to make the final ascent to the summit requires an extra lung and a killer instinct. Don’t write him off yet, but I am not sure that Motlanthe has it.
Of course, with Zuma one never knows. He is, after all, somewhat accident prone. There may be hidden banana skins awaiting his next steps.
Something seriously damaging could still emerge; his enemies may already have something up their sleeves, though now that he is armed with the state-intelligence apparatus there is every reason to think that Zuma will be at least one step ahead of them.
Motlanthe will bide his time, ready to pounce should the president slip up. In late June the ANC will hold its policy conference. With nationalisation dealt with, land — as the president signalled in his State of the Nation address — may well have come to replace it as the primary proxy issue for the ANC’s populist right wing.
Thus, the sensible left has its own strategy and tactics to consider. The South African Communist Party, whose senior leaders are enjoying being in government, has its own national conference in July and will no doubt be conducting an assessment of progress on both the policy and the political fronts.
Preoccupied with making sure it made good use of the executive power Zuma handed it in return for its support in 2007, the left is now waking up to the consequences of having him at the helm: that he gives the same amount of space to the right as he does to the left; perhaps even more.
The rise of a new nationalist right is, thus, the big story of this part of South Africa’s — and the ANC’s — grand narrative. The moderates have been squeezed in the centre.
Now the left is beginning to realise that it must reach out to them and form a strategic alliance with Cabinet ministers such as Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan and Aaron Motsoaledi.
Without such a strategic political collaboration between the left and the centre, the nationalist, anti-progressive right of the ANC will continue to muscle its venal way ahead, contaminating the debate about land reform and disingenuously blaming the Constitution for the slow pace of transformation.
He may be as happy as a lion but Zuma remains too ideologically weak, too politically unprincipled and mindful of his need to secure re-election in December to bring them into line.
Despite beginning his address with some comforting words about the centrality of the Constitution, Zuma chose this week to launch a dastardly pre-emptive attack on the Constitutional Court that would be amusingly absurd if it were not so dangerous. Does he understand the implications of what he says: that a review of the Constitutional Court’s power implies a return to parliamentary democracy?
Has he paused to consider how his childish argument about how the minority, dissenting view in a split Constitutional Court decision may have more logic than the majority would sound when extended to the national electoral outcome?
Thus does the emperor reveal his ethical nakedness and his philosophical vacuity and, thereby, his true character.
For all the good, promising stuff on economic development, politically this year is likely to be toxic and uncongenial — regardless of Malema’s departure from the scene.