Savvy tips for No 1 survivor

Realpolitik: The president ‘s political manipulation has served him well, but his blunders may incur the ire of some in the ANC. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Realpolitik: The president ‘s political manipulation has served him well, but his blunders may incur the ire of some in the ANC. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

It’s likely to have been a tough week for President Jacob Zuma and we know the Mail & ­Guardian may be more than a little responsible for that. Our report last week on the public protector’s provisional report into government spending on Zuma’s Nkandla home has put a dent in our president’s image.

And with our fifth democratic election just a few months away, this is a tough time for Number One.

So, as a public service to our president, we’re offering him an analysis of his strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (a Swot analysis) – totally gratis. No need for the public protector to come sniffing around.

American consultant Albert Humphrey’s famous strategic planning method has helped many a business and individual to move out of the deep end.
But can it help Zuma? We spoke to a number of analysts to figure out what is next for the man from Nkandla.


If you want to know how Zuma got where he is today, it’s simple: incredible knowledge of how the ANC works, coupled with utter ­control of those processes.

"He may not have managed the government nearly as well as [his predecessor Thabo] Mbeki or the national mood nearly as well as [Nelson] Mandela," said Tinyiko Maluleke, a political analyst based at the University of Johannesburg. "But he has managed the party far better that any of his predecessors."

Zuma has understood from the start that coming out on top has ­little to do with fiddly notions of policy or governance. His instincts are born out of his days as head of the ANC’s intelligence unit in exile.

"Whatever skills he managed to amass during that period have become very useful to him," said Maluleke. "He knows who is likely to make which move, and what move [he] must make before [that]."

North West University’s Professor Theo Venter characterised Zuma as politically street-smart. "He asks only once. If you do not produce or stop your nonsense, he will get rid of you in unconventional ways. Julius Malema is a case in point."


But our strengths are often mere hints at our weaknesses. Zuma’s "Project Zuma", as Maluleke dubs it, united the party behind him with little else as a priority, including policy.

"I’m not even sure he’s interested," laughed Professor Steven Friedman, the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. "He doesn’t seem to be."

Unlike other ANC leaders, Zuma’s entire world has been the ANC, with little other experience such as studying abroad, Friedman pointed out.

"He looks at issues from [the point of view of] how it will play in the ANC," said Friedman. "Not how we should solve the employment problem or what to do about infrastructure."

It’s a narrow political focus that is disastrous in the long run, United Kingdom-based financial services group Nomura and others have warned.

"There is a perception he is more concerned about party issues, as opposed to policy in ­government," said Nomura’s Peter Attard Montalto, an emerging-markets strategist. "This, coupled with policy uncertainty, has led to low ­confidence among investors and, in turn, weak ­foreign investment."

But these concerns are subsumed by Zuma’s fight for survival. The president’s biographer, Jeremy Gordin, put it simply: "The biggest threat he faces is himself."


Most analysts were a bit stumped on this one. "His opportunity is to come clean, and quick!" said Gordin. "But that’s not going to happen."

Zuma’s opportunities are largely negative: currently he faces little real threat from either inside or outside the ANC, and it’s a trend that’s likely to continue, given his expert ability to manipulate friend and foe.

"He has this ability to look weak, like a victim, and sooner or later people want to jump to his defence," said Maluleke. "He seems to say: ‘I’m not educated; I don’t know about these things – I just want to do my job. Those who know these things should explain them to me.’"

It is precisely this quality that has endeared him to the rank and file of the party: an ability to appear accessible and affable. Said Maluleke: "That will help a lot going forward, especially with the ordinary members of the ANC and ordinary citizens who continue to hold on to that ­picture of him."


As strong as his hold on the party is now, any number of things could change in the run-up to the e­lection to threaten Zuma’s position.

"Though he’s very good at ­working party politics, one can certainly imagine situations in which he could come under pressure," said Friedman, pointing out that Zuma received the least votes of the top six at the ANC’s elective conference at Mangaung, which delivered him victory once again.

Friedman thinks it could be a combination of conflict in the union movement affecting the ANC’s share of the vote and, of course, Nkandla.

Attard Montalto pointed out that Zuma can’t provide policy leadership and this might present a gap to someone like his deputy in the party, Cyril Ramaphosa.

But Venter believes Zuma may know enough to "neutralise" a threat from Ramaphosa. His money is on ANC secretary general and longtime Zuma wingman Gwede Mantashe.

"He has presidential ambitions and is fed up by Zuma’s constant political mistakes. Mantashe wants Zuma to quit in December 2017," said Venter.

All analysts agree that a poor showing at the polls may well earn Zuma the ire of the party, his savvy knowledge and control of the ANC notwithstanding.


As a final service to the president, we have secured the advice of one-time spin doctor and reputation manager Chris Vick on how best to handle the Nkandla scandal and come out looking even stronger. "He could very easily find a mysterious benefactor to settle his bill," suggested Vick. "Blame the architect for ‘unexpected creep’, have someone settle the debt, and he walks away again."

Vick pointed out a similar strategy that had worked before. "Look how relatively quickly Guptagate left the public imagination. Follow the same modus operandi: find a fall guy."

It’s simple, according to Vick: plausible deniability. "That’s the key to this presidency."

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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