President Jacob Zuma may have survived a debate by the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) about a call for him to step down, but he has emerged weaker than ever.
Three days of heated discussion by the NEC have cast a shadow over the president who once enjoyed the near-unequivocal support of his party. Now the walls are crumbling around him.
During the meeting held at the St George Hotel outside Pretoria last week, Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom put forward a motion for a vote of no confidence in Zuma’s leadership. He was backed by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi as well as Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.
Some of Zuma’s most loyal supporters, including Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kebby Maphatsoe, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and Free State Premier Ace Magashule, came out in strong defence of him, successfully arguing against the call for this vote.
Following the meeting, the ANC came out affirming Zuma as president of the party and of the country. The party said the debate was a healthy exercise that brought to the fore issues that may have otherwise been discussed in dark corners.
In reality it was anything but healthy – secretary general Gwede Mantashe spoke of the “hatred among comrades” he witnessed in the NEC meeting.
The president’s critics may not have succeeded in their quest to have him step down, but their actions were not without consequence for Zuma. Their purpose with the motion was to make a political statement, which they succeeded in doing.
Opposition parties have continually called for Zuma to step down and have tabled five motions of no confidence in him since he took office, but criticism from even a minority of his NEC colleagues does far greater damage.
The events that unfolded at the NEC meeting have put the president in an uncomfortable position – those who serve in his Cabinet have started questioning his mandate as president of the country.
Zuma now realises he has few people in the upper echelons of the ANC he can rely on to rally around him. Even his most vehement supporters appear to be doing so to protect their own interests rather than being motivated by a genuine belief in his leadership.
It’s clear Zuma no longer enjoys the unconditional support of all of the party’s top six, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
His relationship with party chairperson Baleka Mbete is believed to have soured, with Mbete having been overlooked as a candidate for the country’s first female president in favour of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, once a close ally of the president, now has his own ambitions of becoming deputy president under a Ramaphosa-led administration, after not featuring on the list drawn up by the so-called premier league, which is strongly aligned to Zuma.
Mantashe has also said in the past that those who want to ward off criticism should focus on protecting the ANC, and not Zuma specifically.
The sixth person in the NEC is deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte.
Even among ANC branches Zuma no longer enjoys the wealth of support he once did. Earlier this year a report was circulated to the party’s NEC, detailing how some branches wanted Zuma to step down.
Branches decried what they believed was a lack of organisational discipline and called for Zuma to appear before the party’s integrity committee. Last week the Mail & Guardian reported that the committee had summoned Zuma to appear over concerns that he may have brought the party into disrepute.
But Mantashe insisted that Zuma would be meeting the committee to discuss the state of the organisation and did not face any charges.
The integrity committee’s deputy chairperson, Frene Ginwala, said the body does not charge individuals who appear before it, but makes recommendations to the party’s disciplinary committee, which, in previous cases, has implemented all its recommendations. This suggests Zuma’s expected appearance before the committee is serious, despite the ANC’s attempt to downplay it as a courtesy visit.
To strengthen himself, a vulnerable Zuma may attempt a Cabinet reshuffle to keep his critics at arm’s length and surround himself with people who support him. The ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal has already called for such action. This week the youth league’s provincial secretary, Thanduxolo Sabelo, urged ministers to resign if they felt they could no longer trust Zuma. But considering the glaring tensions in the party, going after these ministers would cast an image of Zuma as a wounded leader seeking retribution.
The calibre of the ministers who have criticised him leaves Zuma with little room to manoeuvre. Hanekom, Motsoaledi and Pandor are among the top achievers in his Cabinet.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is also believed to be among those who are dissatisfied with Zuma’s leadership. Removing these key people would deliver a blow to Zuma’s credibility because his leadership depends on having an effective Cabinet and, more critically, one that supports him.
Purging these ministers would come with adverse economic effects, the blame for which would fall squarely on the president’s shoulders. So, at this stage, there is not much the president can do to remove himself from seamlessly the tight spot he finds himself in.
Although the ministers who raised the motion at the NEC have been publicly lauded as heroes for taking a stand, political analyst Ebrahim Fakir says that, to warrant such praise, they should take the call for Zuma to be removed to Parliament.
“The real fight of this kind of contestation must happen in Parliament. They must make up the majority numbers, those who believe that they have a case here. They must then swallow their pride and go find opposition members to join with them and then pass a motion of no confidence through Parliament. That’s the right place for this.”
The NEC may be even more hard-pressed to make a decision on Zuma as the party approaches the 2019 general elections. Analyst Susan Booysen says the apparent inaction by the body is heavily influenced by a fear of falling out of favour with structures that support Zuma.
“If they force the president to step down from the national presidency, even though they can’t force him to step down from the ANC presidency, they really do run the risk of alienating some of the ANC branches, some of the ANC provinces, some of the ANC leagues. That is a real risk,” she said.
“But then, on the other hand, the longer President Zuma is tolerated in his position, the more he plays into the hands of the opposition parties,” she added.
According to political analyst Ralph Mathekga, this fear of destabilising the party is perhaps the only thing that still works in Zuma’s favour.
“Even if he’s not gone, it doesn’t mean his allies have won. They might just save him, not necessarily because they support him or anything, but just so that they can ensure there is no outright instability within the party,” he said.
“Because now, as we speak, let’s be honest, Zuma seems to be the best thing you get in terms of stability in the ANC.”