/ 7 October 2016

New blows to Zuma Inc from outside and inside the ANC

M&G's political editor Matuma Letsoalo takes a look at the SABC's stripped protection
M&G's political editor Matuma Letsoalo takes a look at the SABC's stripped protection

President Jacob Zuma’s week started with a formal discussion at the highest levels of the ANC on whether he should be pushed out of office because he is a liability to the party.

On Thursday, former National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu, an ANC national executive committee (NEC) member, called on Zuma to step down of his own accord.

“We are unhappy about the leadership and the situation and the economy. We are unhappy about many things. If he [Zuma] steps down, that might help the situation,” Sisulu told the Mail & Guardian.

Also on Thursday, Zuma’s office issued a statement to say that the presidency is “seriously concerned about the relentless public attacks” on Zuma by two mining companies that consider him a liability to the economy, referring to the damning statements on his leadership by the heads of Sibanye Gold and AngloGold Ashanti.

And that was before a scheduled meeting with outgoing public protector Thuli Madonsela, who had a few questions about the nature of his relationship with the Gupta family, in the context of an investigation into alleged “state capture” by private interests.

In between all of this, Zuma this week faced open contempt from students and business confidence numbers suggested his leadership is considered worse than that experienced in South Africa in the dying days of apartheid.

Fewer public events in Cabinet and Parliament, political observers said, seemed to indicate that the perception that Zuma’s grip on power is slipping is turning into self-fulfilling prophecy – as important players position themselves in anticipation of a change in administration.

ANC insiders told the M&G that Zuma’s political future dominated debates during the tense NEC meeting the party held at the weekend. Some leaders apparently insisted that the party needs to heed calls by branches for Zuma step down, after the ANC’s poor performance during the local government elections in August.

On Thursday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe confirmed that the issue of Zuma stepping down was discussed during the NEC meeting, but he painted a slightly different picture from the rough-and-tumble affair described by other participants who would not be named.

“We have a total of 53 regions in the ANC. There are regions that say the president [Zuma] must go; others say the NEC and the top six officials must go. But another group insisted on unity,” Mantashe said.

Most branches, he said, were of the view that asking Zuma to step aside would deepen divisions. “The dominating view is: ‘Let’s not rush to [an elective party] conference now.’”

According to insiders, however, Sisulu was scathing in his criticism of Zuma’s leadership style – despite Zuma himself being in the meeting – and other NEC members sought a vote on his future as president.

An NEC member who asked to remain anonymous said he was encouraged by the fact that more senior ANC leaders were beginning to challenge Zuma head on.

“Its too early to tell if he [Zuma] has lost influence in both the Cabinet and the NEC, but signs are there that we are beginning to see a shift in the balance of power,” the source said.

Various insiders pointed to:

  • The NEC’s criticism of Eskom’s position on future partnerships with independent power producers. Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe has in the past been seen as a member of Zuma’s inner circle;
  • The positions of both the NEC and Parliament on the SABC. Newly reappointed corporate affairs chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng has long been seen as being under Zuma’s protection;
  • The ANC’s plan to make civil servants and high-ranking officials undergo lifestyle audits. In the past, Zuma has suggested that such audits should be conducted on businesspeople too, if they are done at all; and
  • Moves to shift responsibility for the slow-motion crisis that is the migration to digital television away from Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. She has treated both the ANC and Parliament with impunity in the past, yet Zuma has taken no action against her.

“The reality is that more people [in the ANC] are taking a stance against wrong things,” the NEC member said. “The people who are now taking a principled stance have been quiet before. My sense is [that] strategic people are beginning to confront issues.”

This week, Zuma reacted to criticism by insisting that it should come only through proper channels.

“While the presidency respects the rights of citizens and leaders to freedom of speech, the business sector has many avenues to raise whatever concerns and issues it has with government and/or its leadership,” Zuma’s office said on Thursday.

The presidency was responding to AngloGold Ashanti chair and ANC stalwart Sipho Pityana telling a mining conference in Johannesburg that Zuma must go because he “lacks integrity and lacks honour. None of the promises he makes to any segment of society can be held on to, because he lacks integrity.”

Pityana received a standing ovation following his remarks.

Unhappy ANC members also had mechanisms to raise their concerns, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu told the M&G.

“We have a problem with people who are speaking in public about this matter,” she said. “We must not make it as if it is for the first time that the ANC is unhappy with one leader or the other, but the important thing is that every member of the ANC knows there are constitutional structures of the ANC. When you are unhappy with anything, you go to those structures. Members must not speak off tune,” said Zulu.

But Sisulu, the scion of a ANC leadership family of long standing, said hearing what others are saying is more important than telling them how they should be speaking.

“We must listen to the people,” Sisulu said. “We are put there by the people. If people are unhappy, we must have self-introspection and decide accordingly what’s in the best interests of the movement.”