Jacob Zuma is the past and not the future of South Africa. To all intents and purposes, the Zuma years are all but over.
When he stepped off the stage at the ANC national conference in Johannesburg in December, the optics did not deceive: as he joined the rank and file of a deeply divided organisation, so his political power evaporated before our eyes.
Zuma looked diminished because he is diminished — his 11th-hour decision to appoint a judicial probe into state capture, which he has resisted for more than a year, is indicative of his weakened position.
Yes, he remains head of government but he serves at the pleasure of the ANC, which is now led by Cyril Ramaphosa — a man whose time has finally come and a politician in search of redemption for himself, his organisation and his country.
But the question now is: Will Ramaphosa use power decisively and, where needed, ruthlessly? Answering it requires a nuanced understanding of what Ramaphosa has inherited.
Regrettably, the media and commentariat have largely reduced this question to a simplistic binary issue: Will Zuma be removed from the Union Buildings before the State of the Nation speech on February 8?
If he is not removed quickly, Ramaphosa will be deemed to have failed his first big test. If he is forced out quickly, then lazy assumptions will be made about what lies ahead.
Much will depend on the balance of power in the ANC’s new national executive committee (NEC), which met for the first time on Wednesday.
And this is where the nuance begins to kick in because the big electoral question at Nasrec was not just who would win, but by what margin and with what support. In turn, that meant that the NEC election was just as important as the “top six” positions — a political fact of which we were persistently reminded over the past five years as Zuma clung to power because he continued to enjoy a majority of support in the NEC.
So, the political character and composition of the NEC is profoundly important to the Ramaphosa era. Will it constrain or embolden him?
On its own, the NEC’s decision to remove or retain Zuma will not provide conclusive evidence of where the political equilibrium point lies and of whether it will support Ramaphosa as he pursues his “change” agenda.
Arguably, the election by the NEC of the 20-person national working committee will likely reveal where the balance of power lies.
The Nasrec NEC election produced as finely a balanced result as it is possible to imagine. A curiosity was not just that the ANC departed from its usual winner-takes-all approach to power, but also that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) may have lost the election yet her faction succeeded in gaining power — the fruits of a long-term strategy of political accumulation within the ANC’s shifting and complex electoral college.
This paradoxical political outcome is now key to understanding what lies ahead for the ANC and Ramaphosa, and the country.
As she no doubt now realises, Dlamini-Zuma was merely a convenient, relatively respectable front for, essentially, the “premier league”, who won two of the top six ANC positions — a very good outcome for them.
The CR17 campaign had reconciled itself to one provincial baron — David Mabuza of Mpumalanga — winning the deputy presidency. Indeed, the deal that was reached with him saw a sizeable, and crucial, number of Mpumalanga delegates voting for Ramaphosa under cover of the “unity” mandate that their branches had given them. It was significant not only in securing Ramaphosa’s victory but also in indicating just how serious a player Mabuza is.
But losing the secretary general’s position in a bungled vote that may yet be challenged or overturned (but probably won’t, in the interests of “unity”) was not what the Ramaphosa camp had bargained on.
When Ace Magashule’s victory was announced, one of Ramaphosa’s most important political allies, Senzo Mchunu, threw up his hands in dismay and later had to be talked out of dropping out of the NEC election.
Indeed, my own instinctive reaction in the heady moments following Ramaphosa’s victory was also that he may have inherited a poisoned chalice — that he had won, but not by big enough a margin, and that the NEC would probably reflect the factional split of the top six.
In recent national conferences, the winning slate has tended to dominate all elected positions in the NEC or at least secure a substantial majority.
Not this time. By my calculation, 37 of the 86 positions (if one includes the top six) came from the Ramaphosa slate and 37 from NDZ’s — a straight tie. Eleven people were elected to the NEC who were not on either slate and just three who appeared on both slates, and they may tip the balance in one direction or the other.
This is a delicate equilibrium that will require fine political management. Ramaphosa may spend too much time looking over his shoulder to be able to look very far ahead.
However, allegiances are likely to change now as the ANC begins to anticipate the 2019 national elections. NEC members, many of whom hold positions in government, may be drawn to the Ramaphosa side as the more electorally attractive option; self-survival will likely trump any allegiance to Zuma or the Guptas.
After all, Mabuza is playing a very long game and he realises that there is little point in being president of the ANC in 2022 or 2027 if the party has lost its majority in the 2019 or 2024 polls. Ramaphosa must now exploit Mabuza’s long-term interests to serve his own short-term ones, including managing the premier league faction and resolving the Zuma dilemma.
But the lack of KwaZulu-Natal representation in the top six leadership presents a real problem. His visit to the province last weekend was, therefore, understandable and necessary.
KwaZulu-Natal has to have a proper stake in the Ramaphosa project, otherwise it will flounder. This is but one of the many problems that lie on the immediate horizon. Ramaphosa’s to-do list is formidable. But this is his moment. Regardless of what his leftist critics say about his capitalist instincts, this is a political leader with an extraordinary CV.
Clearly, he is ready to govern and to lead. Now he will have to bring to bear all his years of experience to rebuild the ANC while distancing himself from Zuma and acting firmly to end the culture of impunity and ensure that those who captured state institutions are prosecuted.
Ramaphosa must also confront a troubled state facing a fiscal crunch that has enormous political and socioeconomic implications.
By chance, I was close to the stage at Nasrec when the good news clearly reached Ramaphosa on his cellphone. He looked up and, just before he closed his eyes and spread his arms wide and his hands upwards, as if to some greater political force, I looked into his eyes and what I saw was disbelief, relief and unburdening joy.
Recalling Zuma would seal the sense of personal redemption, no doubt, and enable us all to share in it. But whether it happens now or later, it should not be the only measure of Ramaphosa’s success or otherwise.