Zuma's power is in the party

A jubilant crowd at Jacob Zuma’s second inauguration. The president still controls all the levers of power in the ANC. (M&G, Delwyn Verasamy)

A jubilant crowd at Jacob Zuma’s second inauguration. The president still controls all the levers of power in the ANC. (M&G, Delwyn Verasamy)

On Monday September 1, Jacob Zuma will have spent 100 days in office in his second term. In theory, the past three months should have been the easiest part of his presidencies. In reality, he has had a rough ride.

During this period, Zuma (72) has been confronted with ominous signs that the corruption charges levelled against him could be resurrected, he has been accused of doing too little to combat corruption, there has been a burst of activity surrounding the grinding Nkandla saga, he has suffered from ill health, and the unrepentantly boisterous Economic Freedom Fighters are at close range.

By contrast, his accomplishments have been muted and his challenges many.

Despite an overwhelming win in the internal party elections as well as in its the national ballot, Zuma re-entered his office at a time of reduced support for the ANC, continuing anger about the Marikana massacre and dissatisfaction with service delivery in many communities.

Even so, and even though Zuma appears to be struggling to shrug off criticism over Nkandla, despite the best efforts of his party, government leaders and analysts say he still has a decent chance of a comeback during his remaining 1?725 days in office.

“We tend to forget about his strengths because they are dwarfed by his personal challenges,” said Sipho Seepe, an academic and ministerial adviser.

“You have to remember that, at a policy level, he has reversed some of the mistakes of the Mbeki government.”

Analysts and insiders say that one of Zuma’s first-term accomplishments, which could form the foundation on which a positive legacy is built, is the massive increase in distributing antiretroviral drugs, which has led to an uptick in life expectancy. He has also been credited with long-term thinking, moving the ANC and the government beyond five-year plans to a vision that spans decades.

But even some of his biggest successes betray underlying problems. “He is strong enough as leader of his party to have his party defend his weaknesses,” said analyst Aubrey Matshiqi. “But that is a perverse kind of strength.”

Zuma: a SWOT analysis

  • A collective approach: “He is doing well because he believes in collective leadership,” according to ANC leader and Minister of Small Business Lindiwe Zulu;
  • Consistency: Zuma, insiders say, is clear about his priorities, with jobs and service delivery at the top of the domestic list, and peace and stability elsewhere on the continent as a foreign policy priority.
  • Candour: Within the ANC, Zuma is praised for being open about his recent illness, at least within the party. “Other leaders are just whisked away without explaining,” a national executive committee (NEC) member said.
  • Control of the ANC: The consensus is that Zuma holds the ANC levers of power and can sway each of its national structures.
  • Control of Parliament: Analysts and smaller opposition parties are of one mind: Zuma has Parliament in his pocket, and need not worry about challenges from that direction, however much noise the EFF might make.


  • A sluggish government: Senior ANC members sympathetic to Zuma say his implementation of plans and policy is hampered by a government where nothing happens quickly, and little happens without failures. The slow pace of change is then laid at his door.
  • Disciplinary action: Zuma, insiders say, has trouble reining in his Cabinet and senior ANC deployees when they step out of line or make the government look bad. EFF leader Julius Malema is a prime example: the one time Zuma came down hard on someone, he created a potent enemy.
  • Delegation: Some NEC members would like to see Deputy President Cyril Rama­phosa being more prominent both locally and internationally, as a clearly anointed successor. “Introducing your deputy as the next man in charge gives investors’ confidence that there is a succession plan and the country is in safe hands,” one said.
  • Family: Khulubuse Zuma, of Aurora infamy and the president’s nephew, comes up often, but the (often politically linked) business dealings of the Zuma family more generally are often cited as a major weakness.
  • Image and scandal: “The scandals, particularly Nkandla but also Guptagate, divert his attention and that of his party and government from the real challenges we face,” said Matshiqi. “That image crisis might become an image crisis for our democratic institutions.”


  • The NDP: The entire ruling alliance has not bought into the National Development Plan (NDP), but Zuma has hitched his wagon to the plan. Many in government and beyond see the NDP as a promising road map, capable of showing results soon enough to cement Zuma’s legacy even while he is still in office.
  • Setting the agenda: Given the power he wields in the party, insiders say Zuma can set both the tone and the agenda for upcoming ANC conferences. He may not be able to determine the exact outcome but he will have a greater influence than anyone else.
  • Kingmaker: There is some debate about whether Zuma will see out his second term but there is fairly solid agreement that he can make or break the campaigns of those who would like to replace him. That enables him to play different sides off against one another.
  • Marikana: Peculiarly, the Marikana massacre may present an opportunity. According to one theory, if the tide turns against Ramaphosa and makes him an unsuitable successor to Zuma, Zuma will have more leeway in choosing the next party leader.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: “This notion of evaluating government departments on an annual basis is not yet fully internalised, but doing it right will make everyone aware their performance, or nonperformance, is being watched, which is the start of a culture of accountability,” Seepe said.


  • Corruption charges: The long-running but currently shelved corruption charges levelled against Zuma are still considered the single biggest threat he faces. If they rise from the ashes again, even the act of defending against them could reflect negatively on him.
  • The public protector: The official ANC view that Thuli Madonsela is on a personal crusade against Zuma seems to be widely held by its top leaders. They worry that the power of her office and her determination will lead to trouble.
  • The economy: Avoiding recession by an uncomfortably narrow margin (0.6% GDP growth in the most recent quarter, following a quarter of contraction) has been something of a wake-up call in ANC circles. Recession or stagflation would be bad for Zuma.
  • His health: Though often described as “energetic”, Zuma is no spring chicken. His recent unscheduled holiday for health reasons suggests an unpredictable threat over which he may have little power.
  • Russia: Russia has deep pockets and an interest in South Africa’s nuclear plans. But it is also looking for a proxy in Africa, and deals and support could come with strings attached.
Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165
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