If Jacob Zuma unleashes his nuclear option by forming a new political party in KwaZulu-Natal the effect could be catastrophic.
Twice wounded, he is out for revenge. And, despite his perennial statements of fidelity to the ANC, his sociopathology now extends to his political home — he no longer cares what damage he does, even if a scorched-earth strategy will cause huge harm to the ruling party.
In the past two national elections, Zuma was an electoral asset for the ANC. In 2009, while the ANC vote went down by an average of 8% in eight provinces, it went up by 16% in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2014, the province’s vote remained stable, while it dropped about 3% across the rest of the country.
Although the asset turned like milk left out of the fridge, the curdling of Zuma as a legitimate political force threatens extensive collateral damage. The point is this: although there is no evidential basis yet for this proposition, it can be reasonably assumed that a Zuma-gone-rogue retains a degree of support in his home province and that there are others in his circle who can be persuaded that the former president will be able to provide political shelter.
South Africa’s electoral system creates a big headache for the ANC leadership or, at least, the Ramaphosa faction. Because all votes cast in the national ballot flow into one big central bucket, the intensity of the flow from the nine provincial “hoses” matters greatly to the overall outcome.
In 2009, more than 19% of the ANC’s national vote came from KwaZulu-Natal; in 2014 it was even higher at just over 22%. So, if Zuma was to turn the tap closed by even 10%then, on a 2014 basis, the ANC would leak a shade over 2% of its national share, taking it to the verge of dropping beneath the politically significant threshold figure of 60%.
Were the flow to be restricted by 15%, then the national figure would go down by 2.77% — or to about 59% in total. If it was as much as 20% — plausible if Zuma’s legendary charisma and pulling power has retained its potency — then the national figure drops by almost 3.5% (overall figure: 58.71%).
These scenarios are based additionally on an assumption that the ANC’s share of the vote holds up across the eight other provinces when, as things stand, there is little or no evidence that this will be the case. It could drop or it could increase on the back of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s popularity and the fact that many ANC voters —and there is plenty of polling evidence of this —were sick and tired of Zuma’s antics and scandalised by the project of state capture that he enabled.
This may be unnecessarily alarmist. It may be that Zuma remains a legend only in his own Nkandla fantasy world, and that his rancid dreams of revenge and a return to some kind of power are just that — fantasies encouraged by a small and desperate group of yes men and women for whom Zuma represents the only remaining safe haven as the net closes in on the core cabal of state-capture agents.
But, even if Zuma does not press his nuclear button and form a party, he may still have sufficient influence in KwaZulu-Natal to cause a reduction in the level of support for the ANC.
Indeed, such is the divided state of the ANC in that province, and rumbling discontent about the manner of Zuma’s recall, that the ANC’s vote in KwaZulu-Natal may decline regardless of just how rogue Zuma is prepared to go. The issue is exacerbated by the potential hostility from some traditional leaders towards the new administration, including concerns about the government’s attitude to “communal” lands such as those held by the Igonyama Trust.
Certainly, the reformist, moderate centre of the ANC is deeply troubled by what is unfolding. They know how high the stakes are but there is precious little that they can do to control or manage Zuma. As an esteemed former editor of the Mail & Guardian, that “lowly newspaper man” Mondli Makhanya drily concluded in his City Press column last Sunday, Zuma is “going to irritate us until we find a warm place for it in a sprawling, high-walled and very secure complex in the Durban suburb of Westville”.
Three of the ANC’s top six — Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and David Mabuza — know Zuma is wounded and out for revenge, and that he is thrashing around looking for whatever leverage he can find. Setting up and registering his own political party may well be what he thinks is all that he has left to him in this respect.
As a symbol of the dilemma that they find themselves facing, their secretary general, Ace Magashule, is part of the plotting. Hence, they have to decide what to do with him. It’s a wicked problem. He can’t be recalled like Thabo Mbeki or Zuma because he was elected by national conference. There would have to be a disciplinary hearing or a vote of no confidence.
But this may simply serve to fan the flames of the mutiny from within. Instead, however unpalatable, they may have to decide that the best thing is to keep their enemies close and in the tent.
The Zuma factor is but one in an array of dynamic data points that are adding even greater uncertainty to this most unpredictable of elections.
For example, the Democratic Alliance limps into the election campaign with internal dissonance. This includes a messy divorce from its Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, confusion over its pivotal attitude to black economic empowerment and transformation and, most recently, an apparent lack of clear-mindedness about who their candidate for president will be and whether party leader Mmusi Maimane has the stomach for the fight.
And, as with the ANC and KwaZulu-Natal, so the DA faces a potentially damaging leakage from its core coloured working-class vote in Cape Town — although the utmost care must be taken with extrapolating highly locally contextualised results, some by-election outcomes have provided evidence of a weakening of its grip on its traditional voter base.
For the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), this is a tremendously important election. Although party leader Julius Malema punches above his weight in the media, he must now turn his brand and profile into a sizeable increase in the share of the vote. This will not be easy. If he wakes up on the day after the election and finds that the EFF are still a single figure party, Malema will —if he has not already, and I think he has —prepare his exit strategy.
But back to the ANC and Ramaphosa. The stakes are high. The reason 60% is a threshold is the trite one that being in the 50s puts you a great deal closer to 50% and the spectre of losing your majority. Ramaphosa’s future hinges on getting a result above 60%. Get between 55% and 59% and the current impasse between his reform group and the rump Zuma nationalist faction continues.
Below 55% and Ramaphosa will be a goner — with vast negative consequences for the economy and sociopolitical stability.
For better or worse, we are back to where we were 10 or 15 years ago — needing a strong but stable, disciplined ANC. It’s as if South Africa cannot escape its dependency syndrome with the ANC. Once again, it finds itself beholden to the party’s fortunes as a watershed election creeps closer by the day.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town