Jacob Zuma won’t be going anywhere soon. In fact, the ANC could have him as its leader for two years longer than his five-year term if a lobby group consisting of senior party leaders from five provinces gets its way – despite his apparent reluctance earlier this year to finish his term because of ill-health.
This means those who are wishing Zuma away might have to exercise a little more patience. His term as ANC president is set to end in 2017 and his term as the country’s president expires two years later.
The pro-Zuma group, led by several loyalist ANC provincial chairpersons, including Free State Premier Ace Magashule, his counterpart in the North West, Supra Mahumapelo, and Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza, is said to be planning to table a proposal to extend Zuma’s term by two years at the party’s national general council (NGC) next year. The aim is to bring the ANC president’s term of office into sync with that of the head of state.
Other provincial chairpersons said to be supporting the move include Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha and KwaZulu-Natal’s ANC boss, Senzo Mchunu.
These ANC leaders believe the proposal, if adopted, would avoid the problem of two centres of power.
It’s not clear how those proposing an extension of Zuma’s ANC term are planning to ensure it is done in an acceptable manner.
The ANC extended its three-year leadership term to five years at the 1997 Mafikeng congress, at which former president Nelson Mandela made way for his successor, Thabo Mbeki. The longer term began in the middle of the president’s term of office, which had started with Mandela in May 1994 and would end only two years later in 1999.
But because Mandela had already scaled down his government duties in favour of his deputy Mbeki, the tension normally created by having two centres of power was absent.
The overlapping terms of office of the head of the party and the head of state only created trouble after the 2007 Polokwane conference, at which Zuma was elected ANC president, while Mbeki ran the state. Mbeki was recalled eight months later.
Zuma is said to be aware of the discussions about and lobbying over the proposal to extend his ANC term by two years.
It appears that those who want him to remain ANC president until 2019 have already started introducing the debate in the party’s provincial structures, hoping that the discussion will be spread throughout the organisation in the build-up to the NGC meeting.
Mahumapelo raised the matter in his political overview at a provincial executive committee (PEC) meeting held in Delareyville two weeks ago, according to a North West PEC member.
“The chairperson raised this in the context of the myth of two centres of power,” the PEC member said.
The proposal to extend Zuma’s ANC term comes at a time when there are widespread calls by opposition parties for him to step down. More significantly, there are also hushed debates within the ANC about plans to convince him to end his government leadership early and voluntarily, and leave his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, to take over as caretaker president for the remainder of the term.
“It is just a wish that Zuma leaves office early … It’s not going to happen,” said a Zuma-supporting NEC member who is lobbying for an extension of his term.
Mahumapelo said the North West would use appropriate ANC platforms to propose that Zuma should serve another two years as party president. “We must align the term of office of government with that of the ANC,” he said. “We can’t postpone it further; we have got to do it now. This is part of the issues the province would like to raise at the next NGC.”
But Mahumapelo denied being part of the national lobby group in the ANC that holds a similar view, saying he could only speak for his province because it had discussed the matter.
Mchunu denied any knowledge of the plan to propose an extension to Zuma’s ANC term. Magashule could not be reached by phone but the ANC Free State spokesperson, Thabo Meeko, said it was too early to discuss Zuma’s fate.
“The premier [Magashule] is busy with delivering services to our people,” he said. “He does not have even five minutes to talk about this.”
Mathabatha also denied know-ledge of the lobby group.
Supporters want him to stay on
The Mail & Guardian understands that at one point Zuma’s doctors advised him to slow down because of ill health and he seriously considered stepping down from the state presidency.
But his supporters, who have benefited handsomely from his presidency, apparently advised him to stay on until the end of his term. They argued his resignation would come across as a victory for his political opponents and that it would have a negative impact on the ANC before the 2016 local government elections.
A thinner Zuma has cut down his international trips, and even on some local events in the past few months, mainly because of his health problems, according to sources. Ramaphosa, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane have taken on some of his duties. This was confirmed by a senior government official with close links to the ANC.
“It’s not an official decision but he does strategic international engagements only,” the official said. “His office took the decision.” It was taken “ahead of the May elections” because of Zuma’s health challenges, which started becoming apparent shortly after the polls.
Zuma attended the summit in Australia this month because South Africa is the only African country in the G20 nations.
He also prioritised this year’s Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), United Nations, European Union and African Union summits, where Pretoria wants to maintain an influence.
“Otherwise, he hosts at home,” the official said. Zuma’s last trip this year will be a state visit to China early next month because “China is our strategic partner, our biggest trading partner in the world”.
Among the trips that Zuma cancelled are two to the United Kingdom – one in February to attend an official memorial service for Mandela and another this month for a Brics conference.
Other trips were not cancelled publicly, like the British ones, the government source said.
Nkoana-Mashabane has taken Zuma’s place at the nuclear summit in The Hague and at “all inaugurations of heads of state”.
Zuma led the South African delegation to the inaugural United States-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in August and visited Russia the same month. He also undertook a working visit to Botswana this week.
But those hoping to see Zuma leaving government before the end of his ANC term of office are likely to be disappointed. “I don’t see him going before his anointed successor is assured – not before the 2017 ANC conference … not before Baleka [Mbete] is ANC president,” the government official said.
But the source admitted that “it’s a mess”, and that there was “too much at stake” if Zuma stepped down early.
“Even his staunchest supporters agree that he is now a liability. The issue is how to manage the exit,” the source said. “You have to take care of his wishes, including his preferences around the successor based on trust.”
The possible reinstatement of corruption charges against him and legal action over the multimillion-rand Nkandla upgrades were some of the key issues worrying the president, sources said.
A government official, who asked not to be named, was adamant Zuma was going nowhere. It was not his nature to run away in a “cowardly” manner from tense and difficult situations, citing his willingness to serve in the war-torn KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s and his perseverance under a hostile Mbeki presidency for six years as examples of his tenacity.
The government official and another senior official were adamant that the president’s health was no longer an issue and that he had not scaled down his duties.
“Unless he is out of the country, he has attended almost every Cabinet meeting and his engagement schedule was not altered,” the government official said.
But they both accepted that, unlike his predecessors, Zuma shared some of his responsibilities with his deputy. There were “good reasons” for this, they said.
“You guys do not want to accept that Zuma trusts Cyril and hence he has assigned some key functions to him. He [Ramaphosa] is also a hard worker and this makes the president comfortable with him. Sharing functions doesn’t mean the president is incapacitated, it means he delegates to someone he trusts,” the government official said.
“Remember he [Zuma] used to be Cyril’s deputy in the ANC when he [the latter] was secretary general and they always joke about the reversal of roles.”
Zuma said of Ramaphosa just before the elections: “We work very well together. We complement each other well and the fact that he is not in government has been a blessing for the ANC because it means that, while I am duty bound in government, he is able to steer the ANC ship afloat and attend to its most pressing organisational needs.”
Doesn’t trust his ex-wife
Responding to those who said Zuma wanted the AU Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to succeed him, the government official said the president didn’t trust his former wife politically.
Dlamini-Zuma, according to the government official, was still seen as part of the Mbeki clique and her elevation to the presidency would mean the return of Mbeki and his people by proxy. She ran foreign affairs under Mbeki.
“Look at the people she appointed to the AU Commission to assist her,” said the Zuma government official. “They are mostly Thabo Mbeki’s people. Even at [ANC] NEC meetings, she spends time with the Mbeki-ites.”
If Zuma was to prefer a successor other than Ramaphosa, according to the government official, it would be Mbete, the speaker of the National Assembly, “not Nkosazana”.
The government official said Zuma had not forgotten that Dlamini-Zuma chose the wrong side in the intense succession power struggle “during which people abused state institutions to try and influence leadership outcome, including when he [the president] should be charged”.
An AU Commission official said there was no indication to suggest that Dlamini-Zuma might return to South Africa before her term ends in 2016.
She accepted nomination to the ANC’s list of candidates for MPs for the new term of Parliament. A government official said she would most certainly return as an MP or benefit from a possible Cabinet reshuffle.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, said the suggestion that the deputy president could become caretaker president was “misplaced and mischievous”. “The deputy president’s responsibility arises from the Constitution, which enjoins him to assist the president in executing his duties,” he said.
The ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said Zuma’s fate was not up for discussion.
“What people say in taverns is not a discussion,” he said. “It is a narrow view that they have in their heads.”
No change in programme
Zuma’s presidential spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, denied that the president has cut down his foreign trips.
“He has done all visits that are on his programme this year. The president has just returned from the G20 where South Africa’s contribution could be felt in the resolutions taken,” he said.
“He will be off to the World Economic Forum and the African Union Summit in Ethiopia in January 2015 as usual. There is no change at all in the president’s programme, both domestically and internationally.”
Maharaj did not respond to other questions posed by the M&G on discussions to extend Zuma’s ANC term of office.
Mabuza was unavailable for comment and ANC Mpumalanga secretary Lucky Ndinisa declined to comment.