Zuma’s exit won’t be swift or dignified

The process to remove President Jacob Zuma will be neither simple nor quick, nor should it be. South Africans have become so accustomed to the excesses of the Zuma blight that the extraordinary is now commonplace, or at least thought of that way.

The removal of a sitting head of state without an election is nothing ordinary. Yet listening to the chatter and the media, you get the impression that in the expectations of many it should have happened already.

The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meets again this weekend. Unlike last week’s short meeting focusing on the January 8 birthday statement, the NEC this time will discuss Zuma’s future. And no, it will not be easy, short or one-sided.

It is necessary to recall the events of September 2008 to understand the process currently unfolding inside the ANC’s top leadership structures.

Back then, a sitting head of state had lost the battle to retain control of the ruling party, and his sworn political enemy — carried on the shoulders of an alliance of interests that was decidedly hostile to the president — had taken over.

As soon as the dust had settled on the ANC’s 52nd national conference, at which then-president Thabo Mbeki lost the party leadership to Zuma, the latter and his allies were looking for ways to short-circuit the electoral process and get rid of Mbeki early. Their calculations made sense at the time.

Zuma’s future was imperilled by several legal problems relating to his Schabir Shaik links. It had already cost him the position of deputy president in Mbeki’s government. Now, it threatened to deny him the presidency, as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) readied itself to charge the new ANC president with 783 counts of fraud and corruption.

With Zuma’s impending prosecution, any hope of his allies getting their hands on the state and implementing their preferred programmes, both political and financial, would have ended. Thus, leaving Mbeki still effectively in charge of the levers of state represented an existential threat to the Polokwane alliance that had backed Zuma.

This unease existed for eight months between January and September 2008, until the Pietermaritzburg high court found that Mbeki had been complicit in a “conspiracy” to use the prosecuting authority to go after Zuma. The court set aside the case against Zuma. That the decision was later struck down on appeal was moot; by then, the Zuma-controlled NEC had found its crutch. Two nights after a marathon NEC meeting, Mbeki was on television announcing “his” decision to resign as president of the republic.

In the intervening nine years, many have argued about why Mbeki did not “fight” to keep his job and why he gave in to the ANC’s “unconstitutional” move against him (I am still of the view that the party was well within its rights to do as it did, whatever you think of its motives).

There is a view — and you will hear it repeated now by those who wish to defend Zuma against his own impending “recall” — that removing an elected president by diktat of a party structure was dangerous for our democracy and should have been tested in the courts. That view always ignored — and still does so now in its defence of Zuma — that the Mbeki recall lay not on constitutional grounds but political threats, both stated and implied. For Mbeki, there were two such threats.

The NEC can’t “remove” the president of the country, but it controls the ruling party’s parliamentary caucus, the group of people who in effect elect him or her. And because our hybrid system allows for a Westminster-style vote of no confidence by a simple majority, Mbeki’s choice was whether to avoid or risk such a humiliation. Wisely, he chose avoidance. We would also be wise to factor in that the current incumbent will probably choose differently.

Some ANC insiders have spoken of a “dossier” of embarrassing personal indiscretions Zuma would have wanted to keep private. His ANC comrades suggested its confidentiality could not be guaranteed in an all-out bunfight over his continued presidency. Again, we would do well to remember that no dossier threatens Zuma. His transgressions — personal, political, constitutional, criminal — are nearly all known. The few we don’t know he would simply brazen out, as he has been doing for his entire second term.

The process currently playing out regarding Zuma’s exit from office is likely to play out differently from 10 years ago. There is no shortage of court findings, public protector investigations and media scandals that can be used to justify his recall. Many of these, unlike the Pietermaritzburg high court ruling, will stick. After all, no less than the Constitutional Court has already pronounced that the president failed his duty to uphold his constitutional oath. Where the Mbeki and Zuma cases differ is the willingness of each man to act according to NEC instructions. The stakes are much higher for Zuma, and he is not yet as weak as Mbeki was in the spring of 2008.

Despite having been the most powerful presence in South African politics for more than a decade prior to the Polokwane conference, Mbeki was a shadow of his former self that year. The ANC was almost unrecognisable. What few allies he had were marginalised. They had already abandoned the cause and were preparing to decamp to a new political party, leaving the ANC to the Zuma crowd. Mbeki himself had nothing much to fight for except legacy and reputation. That was better achieved, he reasoned, by allowing himself to slip down the greasy pole than fighting to hold on. He was 66 by then, with only nine months to go in office and a respectable retirement to look forward to. Having never been accused of a prosecutable crime, there was nothing that even a vindictive successor could pursue him for once he was out of office.

Zuma, by contrast, is still very invested in the preservation of the power he has built over the past eight years. Its unravelling at the hands of his opponents will be his undoing.

He needs to maintain control over the NPA if he is to avoid the reinstatement of the decade-old fraud and corruption charges. This control is already slipping. He needs control over the terms of reference, and thus the outcomes, of the judicial inquiry into state capture. His financial entanglements mean he must deliver national expenditure items that are starting to look impossible. Chief among these is a nuclear energy build programme that is estimated to cost more than R1‑trillion over the next 10 years.

Moreover, the family he has placed at the centre of state procurement is not ready to see the taps run dry, let alone be pursued by the Asset Forfeiture Unit, the Hawks, the NPA and other law enforcement agencies.

Plus, Zuma still has allies inside the party and across the state apparatus. These allies managed to get elected to the NEC and even the leadership at the last elective conference. In the Cabinet, the ministers loyal to Zuma are unlikely to quit en masse, even if he did resign, as Mbeki’s Cabinet allies did after his resignation.

In the state, key agencies are stuffed to the brim with his cronies, many of whom have broken laws in their efforts to protect their patron.

All of this means a letter from the NEC “advising” Zuma to resign is unlikely to do the trick. Nor will the accompanying threats. We already know he is all but immune to these.

Whereas 10 years ago it was Mbeki who had to decide between risk and avoidance, Zuma will shift that burden back to the ANC. The political and potential constitutional crisis that many feared when Mbeki was booted is, in fact, likelier now. Will the ANC risk such a crisis or choose to avoid it? If they choose avoidance, do they bring upon themselves another kind of crisis, another risk: one of diminished legitimacy and subsequent electoral punishment?

Reacting to Mbeki’s resignation, then Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi lauded the president for acting so swiftly in the interest of the country.

“This is a man who cares deeply about South Africa’s developmental challenges, stable economic framework and her place in the world.”

He echoed the sentiments of leaders in both the ANC and the opposition that Mbeki remained a man to be admired, that he — when the final moment called for it — put his country and his party above himself.

In 2018, there will be no repeat of such sentiments, no self-sacrifice. Prepare for a bumpy ride ahead.

Vukani Mde is a founder of 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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