Zuma puts the knife into Blade

Uneasy alliance: Some SACP members are still feeling the love towards the ANC, as fears mount of a Cabinet purge. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)

Uneasy alliance: Some SACP members are still feeling the love towards the ANC, as fears mount of a Cabinet purge. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)

When the South African Communist Party (SACP) suggested in one of the discussion documents for its national general council last winter that former president Thabo Mbeki – regarded as anti-communist – was a better devil to know than President Jacob Zuma, it became clear that relations between Blade Nzimande and Zuma had reached a nadir.

The two key leaders of the ANC-led alliance parties, once close allies, had not been in each other’s good books for months before that – and the sour relationship continues to this day.

It is an open secret that Zuma does not take kindly to anyone who dares to compare him unfavourably with his predecessor. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema would attest to this after he was kicked out of the ANC for saying Zuma’s leadership style was worse than Mbeki’s.

Zuma has not been as ruthless towards Nzimande as he was towards Malema, but the SACP boss and higher education minister is apparently feeling increasingly isolated by the president.

Zuma is said to have lost trust in Nzimande, who has publicly criticised the conduct of some of the president’s closest associates. These include the SABC’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who was found by the public protector to have lied about his matric certificate, and the public broadcaster’s former chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala, who was in turn accused of faking her qualifications.

ANC and government insiders close to both Zuma and Nzimande say the two men have not held a one-on-one meeting for more than a year. They used to meet regularly.

Nzimande, according to government sources, has attempted several times to set up a meeting with Zuma, but Number One no longer answers his calls, nor does he return them.

The closest the two leaders seem able to get nowadays is when they shake hands at Cabinet or ANC meetings. This is one of the reasons communist leaders believe Zuma is planning to kick them out of his Cabinet.

Nzimande and his comrades in the SACP, some of whom serve in Zuma’s Cabinet as well as on the ANC national executive committee, have also hardened their attitudes towards Zuma and his trusted allies in the ANC, including David Mabuza, Supra Mahumapelo and Ace Magashule, the premiers and ANC chairs of Mpumalanga, the North West and the Free State respectively.

After the Constitutional Court judgment against Zuma for not complying with the public protector’s report on Nkandla, the SACP refused to accept Zuma’s apology, despite the ANC’s national executive committee, on which some SACP leaders serve, doing so.

The reality is that nationalists and communists in the ANC have started looking at their political future beyond Zuma. He still enjoys enough support in the ANC to be able to anoint a successor, but Zuma and Nzimande differ sharply on suitable candidates.

Nzimande and some SACP and Cosatu leaders would like deputy president and former unionist Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma as the ANC and South Africa’s president, with ANC secretary general and SACP central committee member Gwede Mantashe as his deputy.

But Zuma does not trust Ramaphosa and Mantashe to protect him from possible prosecution on corruption charges that could be reinstated after the high court in Pretoria set aside the 2009 decision to withdraw the 783 criminal charges against the president. The National Prosecuting Authority and Zuma are appealing the court’s decision, but legal experts believe their chances of success are slim.

Zuma has made it clear that he would prefer a woman to be the next president of the ANC and South Africa. The frontrunners for the position would be his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, just finishing her term as chairperson of the African Union Commission, and speaker in the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete.

Although the ANC has not opened the nomination process for new leaders, the current debates about state capture, among other things, are seen as evidence of a proxy ­battle being waged for leadership positions in 2017.

The SACP, more than any other alliance partner, has taken a tough stance on the controversial issue of state capture, which implicates Zuma’s family friends, the Guptas. It’s ironic that a party that was prepared to defend Zuma when he faced corruption and rape charges is now threatening to go to the streets to protest against state capture.

But perhaps, for the sake of the SACP’s credibility, it is better late than never.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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