Zuma gathers allies close to fend off opposition

There isn’t just a Cabinet reshuffle on the cards. There is talk in government corridors of sweeping changes to premiers and in Parliament, which will pit President Jacob Zuma and his allies against their opponents on the left.

The Cabinet reshuffle could happen as soon as next week and will follow what is likely to be a fractious meeting of the ANC’s top decision-making body, the national executive committee (NEC), this weekend.

This follows startling allegations this week by senior figures such as former MP Vytjie Mentor and the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, that the Guptas knew about their appointments in advance, or even offered them positions.

The finance ministry is likely to be the chief target, with talk of removing Jonas under the guise of promoting him to trade and industry minister and dropping the current incumbent, Rob Davies of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies. (Martin Rhodes, Business Day/ Gallo Images) 

It is said that Jonas will be replaced by Sfiso Buthelezi, a close Zuma ally and the chief operations officer and director of the Makana Investment Corporation – an investment vehicle for ex-political prisoners, particularly those from Robben Island.

Buthelezi was sworn in as an MP earlier this month, apparently in preparation for his appointment and to fill a vacancy left by a resignation. Placing him in the finance ministry would serve as a counterweight to an increasingly independent Pravin Gordhan, the finance minister, and give Buthelezi oversight of the Public Investment Corporation, which controls R1.8-trillion in assets.

The deputy minister also oversees the South African Revenue Service, which is controlled by Zuma ally Tom Moyane.

Communist leaders could also be sidelined in other ministries. The minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, could be dropped in favour of Fikile Mbalula, the sports minister, and Senzeni Zokwana, the agriculture minister, could be replaced by the KwaZulu-Natal premier, Senzo Mchunu.

Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana. (Gustav Butlex)

Nzimande is the general secretary of the SACP and Zokwana is the party’s chairperson. Both are members of the ANC’s NEC. 

There has been talk in ANC circles in KwaZulu-Natal that Mchunu will be shifted from the top provincial spot to make way for the current ANC provincial chairperson, Sihle Zikalala. The two men are not in the same camp, with Zikalala thought to be aligned to the so-called “premier league” of three provincial leaders said to be loyal to Zuma and partial to the controversial Gupta family.

These moves will strengthen Zuma’s position in the ANC and are also probably linked to his successor. The near-complete removal of opposition in the tripartite alliance, particularly communist leaders in positions of power in government, is likely to weaken those on the left who will field a candidate opposed to Zuma at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is a likely frontrunner.

The premier league is thought to be pushing for a candidate closely aligned to Zuma’s interests, with the strongest contender so far being the African Union Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Leadership changes are also expected in Parliament. ANC chief whip Stone Sizani has vacated the position to become the ambassador to Germany.

Those mentioned as possible replacements include Richard Mdakane – president of the South African National Civic Organisation, chairperson of the sub-rules committee in Parliament, and also a former Gauteng legislature chief whip – and Jackson Mthembu, the former party spokesperson and Mpumalanga transport MEC. Both men have been close to Zuma.

Four sources have also claimed that several efforts have been made to persuade the North West premier, Supra Mahumapelo, a member of the premier league, to take up Sizani’s position, but he refused.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The moves could strengthen Zuma’s hand at a time when he is coming under increasing fire in the ANC over his close association with the controversial Gupta family. But the left are fighting back.

A source close to the ANC in the North West said the ANC’s national leadership is unhappy about the way the province is being run and there have been several attempts since December to deploy Mahumapelo elsewhere.

Two sources said efforts were made last week to convince Mahumapelo to go. His supporters believe this was a move by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe to weaken the premier league. Mantashe said on Wednesday there was no discussion about Mahumapelo becoming chief whip. “You’re asking me about stories that do not exist. Who nominated Supra to be chief whip? People just create stories and circulate it.”

But he said if Mahumapelo had been nominated, he would not have opposed it.

Mahumapelo and North West ANC secretary Dakota Legoete could not be reached for comment.

The ANC’s spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, said the party would discuss the influence of the Gupta family on government appointments at this weekend’s NEC meeting.

“It is expected that the upcoming meeting of the national executive committee, as part of its overall political discussion, will consider this matter so as to reaffirm the authority of the organisation and restore the confidence of our people,” Kodwa said.

He added that the party would not “outsource” the appointment of government leaders to any member of the public.

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