South Africa’s top political analysts are divided on the fate of President Jacob Zuma and whether his political opponents in the ANC can muster enough support to oust him — or if the pressure of a struggling economy and public opinion will push the ruling party to act.
Pitted against remarks made by senior ANC leaders including secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Zuma’s comments are in clear contradiction. But analysts who spoke to the Mail and Guardian say that while this may be a disadvantage to the president, it’s debatable what impact it would actually have on him.
According to Unisa policy and politics analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni, by failing to endorse Gordhan and instead choosing to defend his appointment of Des Van Rooyen as finance minister, Zuma showed that he was unwilling to find consensus in the currently factionalised environment.
“Careful analysis suggests that Zuma may be deeply isolated and alienated,” Fikeni said. “He has constituencies which support him and others that do not, but understand the importance of unity ahead of local government elections. Zuma has created the impression of himself as a consultative president who believes in finding consensus.
“Surviving and dodging political bullets has become more fundamental (to the president) than the national interests, values and principals of the ANC.
“More worryingly, he may genuinely not be grasping the fundamentals of accountability. To him it looks like surviving the debate and winning arguments is more important than the higher calling of accountability. His response [on matters ranging from Nkandla to Mcebisi Jonas] is constantly defensive,” Fikeni said.
However, Professor Sipho Seepe, academic director for the Henley Business School, says that the perception of Zuma as a beleaguered president, which has been created by his opponents in the public discourse, is in fact false.
“If one were to be honest, you don’t see somebody who is in trouble. There is not a single ANC provincial structure that has taken a strong position against the president. Even Gauteng changed its tune after its own regions accepted Zuma’s apology.
“The ANC still sees Zuma as a trump card; he’s still connected to the people. Whenever the ANC goes to large gatherings, Zuma still has a lot of support. Those who want to see change must accept this reality,” Seepe said.
He also said that Zuma’s defence of his decision to appoint Des Van Rooyen as finance minister may have been a personal issue.
“I don’t see a weakened president. At government level, Zuma chooses not to retreat on Van Rooyen because he’s trying to prove his decision was not uninformed, as it is being portrayed. It’s more of a personal matter, to show that he was not ignorant,” Seepe said.
Ralph Mathekga, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection’s faculty head for political economy, also believes Zuma’s opponents are outnumbered in the governing party. He says that Gordhan’s call for the public to protect democratic institutions — and Ramaphosa’s appeal for professionals and academics to engage with the ANC — confirms this.
“Their strategy is the use of platforms outside the ANC to voice concerns about the party and Zuma. By doing that, it shows that they have no strength within the party and don’t have the NEC’s majority support,” Mathekga said.
“It means they have to do the work to get Zuma out. There is no short cut to this. They have to try to shift the mood inside the ANC and galvanise the people [against Zuma]. They can shout all they like within press conferences. The only way to regain gravitas within the ANC is internal lobbying of structures, including branches.
“We are witnessing a proxy fight within the party. Zuma is no longer aware of the extent to which he is captured. This remains an internal ANC problem with implications for the state. It’s not about accountability or respecting the judiciary. It’s about the ANC’s inability to take action against its own,” Mathekga said.
University of the Witwatersrand school of governance professor Susan Booysen agrees that Zuma retains majority support in the ANC. “He is indeed in contradiction with other ANC voices but not all of them. He has support, weakened, but significant and sufficient to keep him in his position. He couldn’t have done what he is doing without some backing from within the NEC [national executive committee] and [the] ANC,” she said.
But Booysen says that it’s clear that the president regards himself as a force in his own right. “He’s a very strident president, like a kamikaze pilot who knows the plane is going to crash and who knows he has his parachute,” she said.