After 10 years at the helm of the ANC— We need to talk about Jacob Zuma

The tenure of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma as president of the ANC has come to an end. His presidency of the country will continue to limp along for a while — weeks, maybe months — but probably not the 18 or so months our electoral schedule allows him to stay for.

His fate in that arena will be decided in the next few weeks by a combination of factors, including the new ANC leadership, the party’s electoral prospects, various court processes and whatever still has to slither out of the ethical sewer that is the #GuptaLeaks emails.

For the ANC, however, the reckoning is here. The circle that was opened in Polokwane closes this week in Nasrec. The ruling party must now assess the legacy of Jacob Zuma as its president. It doesn’t have far to look. All around us in Nasrec, the ruinous inheritance of Zuma’s 10 years at the head of the ANC lies bare for all to see. The mess that the conference itself descended to is testimony.

Before the conference had even convened, it was obvious something had happened to the integrity of internal ANC processes that was unprecedented. Two of the party’s provincial executive committees (PECs) – representing Free State and KwaZulu-Natal – had their status stripped by courts of law, which denied them the right to govern over ANC structures and barred them from participating in the Nasrec conference. In addition, the largest region in a third province – North West – was also asked to stay away.

This was up from just one PEC barred from participation in the last conference in 2012, and zero back in 2007. Interestingly, all of the successful court challenges were brought in the so-called Premier League provinces, where the provincial party bosses are allies and cronies of Zuma, and were expected to corral provincial delegates to support former African Union chairperson and handpicked successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This is not coincidence. It is a sign of the destructive approach of the Zuma cabal to basic democratic norms, more evidence of how little they care for laws, rules and processes. That applies equally inside the ANC as it does in the state.


The court judgments barring the two Dlamini-Zuma PECs came close to the start of conference and thus attracted the most attention, but they are only the latest in a trend that has become established during Zuma’s second term in office. Everywhere one looks, ANC internal processes are beset by problems and challenges to their legitimacy, and court judgments are as likely a final arbiter of leadership contests as conference voting. This trend points to a significant deficit of trust. Increasingly, members of the party do not trust their own comrades, their leaders or even the rules of engagement for settling internal contestation.

In his political report to the conference, Zuma referred to this trend but, of course, in a manner in keeping with his tenuous hold on the reality that most of us take for granted.

“We also frown upon the subjection of our internal organisational matters to court processes. ANC members should use internal dispute resolution processes. Judges should not be asked to dictate ANC organisational processes and the direction of the movement,” said Zuma.

He further pointed to a previous decision the ANC had made — albeit at a time when there was less distrust of ANC process than there is now — that members who took the party to court effectively “defined themselves outside the ANC”, whatever that was originally intended to mean, and berated the party for its failure to “implement” this resolution. There was little or no attempt to understand what the constant legal challenges meant for the perceived legitimacy of ANC rules, or that of those charged with enforcing them.

Of all the deleterious aspects of Zuma’s legacy in the ANC, this is perhaps the most significant: in 10 years of disastrous and amoral leadership, the ruling party has lost all capacity for self-examination. This is why most have waited in vain for the start of the party’s mythical and supposedly inevitable “self-correction”. Self-correction is a result of self-criticism, and self-criticism itself results from self-examination. Under Zuma, the ANC has become the hapless victim of malign forces, foreign powers, enemies, fifth columnists, the media, and every other external influence you can think of. Nothing is of its own doing; no problem is ever self-inflicted. This is pretty much Zuma’s personality, which has imprinted on the ANC. And it is not obvious that this unfortunate trait will cease to be a part of the ANC’s DNA when Zuma is gone.

One of the paradoxes of Zuma’s time as ANC president is that a man who came to power largely through the efforts of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and labour federation Cosatu was, in the final analysis, the catalyst for the decisive collapse of the tripartite alliance. This is because in office Zuma pursued a deeply sectarian and factional programme that had little to do with the ideological aims of the ANC and its alliance and everything to do with Zuma’s need for maximum wealth accumulation and the consolidation of narrow patronage networks.

The blame for this — or at least for the failure to foresee this inevitable outcome — lies with the alliance partners. In the rush to get back at Thabo Mbeki for his marginalisation of the alliance, neither Cosatu nor the SACP bothered to commit Zuma — at the time the only viable path to defeating the Mbeki third term project — to a minimum policy programme with measurable outcomes and clearly defined consequences for deviation. It would prove to be the biggest and most expensive blank cheque the alliance has written in favour of the ANC since the dawn of democracy.

It is instructive that the ANC’s two main allies have chosen to play a more muted role in the party’s 2017 succession — the bitter lessons of 2007 have sunk in. Cosatu did endorse Cyril Ramaphosa as their preferred successor to Zuma but it expended none of the overt energy it invested in the latter’s campaign 10 years ago. This is surely a deliberate strategy as well as the predictable result of Zuma’s efforts to weaken and neutralise the alliance partners.

Zuma understood better than his allies that the path he would follow as president would inexorably drive a wedge into the heart of the alliance. He moved stealthily to neuter the power of the two organisations to hold him in check and to impede his ability to control the succession in a way that serves his interests. Stealthily, because as recently as three years ago Cosatu was still doing his bidding, happily destroying the unity of the organised workers’ movement to rid it of all resistance to the Zuma project. Today the federation is a shadow of its former self; weakened, divided and unable to help Ramaphosa even if it still had the will to be significant player in the palace politics of the ANC.

For its part the SACP refused to even endorse anyone. It also took the unprecedented step of contesting the ANC in elections (the Metsimaholo by-election) something the party had steadfastly resisted doing for a decade in the hope that the ANC could still be relied upon to pursue a pro-poor governance agenda.

Perhaps Zuma’s most significant legacy for the ruling party, though, has been on its electoral fortunes. It is here where the wrecking ball has been at its most destructive. The 12th president of the ANC took a party that commanded 70% of voter support (in the 2004 general election) down to 62% in 2014, and 54% just two years later in the 2016 local government polls. As part of the bargain he lost the party a large chunk of its urban base, leading to the loss of most of the country’s biggest cities.

It is a matter of great doubt whether the ANC can regain the trust of these urban voters. I am not even persuaded that electing Ramaphosa would be enough on its own to reverse the tide. Urban voters aren’t just merely angry about Zuma’s malevolent rule. They have been failed by the ruling party quite apart from Zuma’s ruinous stewardship of the state, not least of which its failure to halt his wicked advance through our politics.

Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma, the urban working class is all but lost to the ruling party. It is my prediction that the breaking of their relationship with the ANC will be Gedleyihlekisa’s longest lasting legacy.

Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy

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Vukani Mde
Vukani Mde
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy.

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