There can be very little doubt now that momentum is building inside the ANC for President Jacob Zuma to vacate office as soon as possible. The reasons the ANC needs this to happen — and to happen quickly — are obvious. The longer Zuma stays in office and in the public eye, and the closer the country gets to the polls, the more the ANC bleeds.
If you are not yet inclined to believe the leaks from within official party meetings, the cryptic official statements and interviews, and media briefings that mask as much as they reveal, then you should pay heed to the counter-offensive from the president’s defenders.
Over the past weekend, the two dependable Zuma allies among the party’s officials came out in defence of the man who increasingly looks like a vulnerable lame duck. Secretary general Ace Magashule, speaking at a party event in KwaZulu-Natal, threw thinly veiled barbs at new party president Cyril Ramaphosa and assured a Zuma-supporting crowd that “their ANC” was not lost forever and could be regained at the party’s next elective conference in five years’ time.
His deputy, Jessie Duarte, told City Press that Zuma was “going nowhere” until his term of office ends in 2019, an untenable prospect for the ruling party. The interview was calculated as a direct contradiction of Ramaphosa’s stated view that the party was carefully managing the “transition” — a term that can only be understood to mean Zuma exiting the stage. In fact, Duarte made a pointed attempt to clip Ramaphosa’s wings, saying that he was “expressing his own personal view” when he told the BBC that Zuma was “anxious” about his future.
These co-ordinated Zuma defence manoeuvres are an obvious response to what is now clear for all to see: the resistance is waning, and fewer and fewer members of the party’s top structures are prepared to stand up for the notion that Zuma should remain in office for any length of time. Indeed, processes quite outside the control of the party leadership may make that impossible anyway.
Zuma’s future arose as an item of discussion at the party’s national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla last month, a fact Magashule and Duarte admitted in a post-NEC media briefing. Both were at pains at that briefing to emphasise that the meeting did not hold any discussion about Zuma’s departure but merely agreed that the officials should drive closer “co-ordination” between the new ANC leadership and the government.
They were not wrong, but only in the sense that someone who tells you half the story is right. The NEC never held any lengthy discussion about Zuma’s future simply because it didn’t prove necessary. Even among his remaining allies, few rose up to argue for him to complete his term. What counter-arguments they could muster focused on timing and the modalities of the exit, and the now-familiar refrain about “not embarrassing or humiliating the president”.
When the NEC directed the officials to manage the process, it was essentially instructing them to preside over an orderly exit. But the ANC is in danger of not getting this outcome, as events overtake the best-laid plans.
There are now a few ways in which they can manage Zuma’s exit from the political stage, and any of them are likely to result in his departure by end of February.
This is the option heavily favoured by many in the ANC’s new leadership. This euphemism neatly allows all sides to agree — at least in public — on what the ANC has decided, without having to fight over interpretation. It is obvious that Ramaphosa’s understanding of what closer co-ordination between the ANC and government means would differ markedly from Duarte’s.
But it is clear from the outcomes of the NEC lekgotla, not to mention the statement issued after the first meeting of the national working committee, that the party expects Ramaphosa to manage Zuma out of the Union Buildings in a quick, orderly manner — hopefully ahead of the State of the Nation address (Sona) on February 8.
Zuma and Ramaphosa are due to meet again as part of their regular “closer co-ordination” schedule on February 6, just two days before Sona. If the ANC leaves it until then to ask the president not to deliver the Sona, the party will probably have left it too late. Zuma will refuse and will dare the party to come after him in Parliament.
There may be a reprieve for both parties in the form of attempts by the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to postpone Sona to consider a fresh motion of no confidence in the president. Such a postponement, even for a week, would allow Ramaphosa and the ANC valuable extra time to talk to Zuma and, perhaps, grant whatever assurances the latter needs to agree to a quiet exit.
The most important assurances, at least from Zuma’s perspective, would be some kind of stay of prosecution on the 2007 corruption charges, and a deal that saves his son Duduzane, who is alleged to be one of the key players in the state capture saga.
‘One last humiliation’
If the Sona is not pushed back, or if Zuma refuses to go regardless of when it takes place, then the EFF option goes into play. We are all familiar with the embarrassing spectacle Sona has become since 2014. Many in the NEC are quite prepared to see it happen one more time. The idea is that the NEC would then be able to tell him the ANC can’t afford any more of those as it gears up for the 2019 elections, and he should step down for the sake of saving the party — and himself — any more embarrassment. Whether Zuma is sensitive to this sort of logic is doubtful though, and the EFF option has a second act to it, which has already been activated.
‘Nine’s the lucky charm’
Opposition parties have placed seven motions of no confidence (plus one motion to impeach) in the president during his time in office, including one that was conducted by secret ballot and was backed by a number of ANC MPs. The EFF has written to the speaker to schedule an eighth no-confidence debate ahead of the Sona. It will be the first that Zuma will have to ride out without the support of the party’s national executive. There is talk now inside the NEC that perhaps the party should allow its MPs to vote how they see fit on such a motion, leaving Zuma’s fate to an ANC parliamentary caucus that has grown increasingly hostile.
‘Mauled by his own sheep’
National director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams gave the president and his legal team until January 31 to make representations arguing against prosecution on 783 counts of fraud and corruption. With the deadline having been narrowly met, Zuma’s fate — in relation to the law, at least — is now in Abrahams’s hands.
The man widely known as “Shaun the Sheep” — because of his history as a dependable tool of the Zuma cabal in the National Prosecuting Authority — may have played a blinder. By extending the deadline from last November to January, Abrahams has given himself enough time to read and interpret the new political zeitgeist. Making a critical prosecutorial decision on Zuma in mid-December, as the ANC’s conference got under way, would have been tricky. Doing so in mid-February, with Zuma on the back foot and on his way out, is virtually risk-free.
If Abrahams and his team decide they will prosecute, it will be the coup de grace that the anti-Zuma forces — and, frankly, the country — need. It could also be Abrahams’s trump card to save his own skin. A court has already ruled that his appointment to the position was unlawful and put the responsibility for choosing a new prosecutions boss in the hands of Ramaphosa because of Zuma’s conflict of interest. Prosecuting the latter would necessitate an immediate resignation and hand the presidency to the former.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the month, it is highly probable that at least one of the possibilities sketched out above will result in the end of the Zuma presidency before March dawns.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy