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How Zuma’s 15-month sentence will affect this weekend’s NEC meeting

After three-and-a-half years of leading the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa has finally solidified his strength and authority in the party. In the past few months, Ramaphosa, often considered a “lame duck” politician, has managed to ingratiate himself in ANC structures and provinces that were considered impenetrable. 

The president has the majority in the national working committee and those in the national executive committee (NEC) bold enough to challenge his authority are few and far between these days. His recent bold moves in government have demonstrated this plainly in recent weeks. 

Ramaphosa and his allies have privatised SAA — against the wishes of one Ace Magashule and his ardent loyalists; dissolved the Free State provincial executive committee; rebuked the so-called radical economic transformation faction; disbanded the overzealous Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA); and eliminated his most fierce opponent — Magashule. 

If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s fiscal cliff and the rise in unemployment, Ramaphosa would be on a political high. 

The statesman even enjoys the support of his historical rival, former president Thabo Mbeki. 

This may all change when the NEC meets for the first time since Magashule was suspended this weekend. 

Former president Jacob Zuma has been found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months direct jail time. 

This ruling could not have come at a more inconvenient time for the statesman. While Magashule’s strength in the party’s top echelon is waning, Zuma still wields a significant level of support in the NEC and party structures.

Take deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, for instance. Two months ago, during a six-hour meeting that the top six arranged with the Nkandla leader, she advocated for the party to engage the judiciary on his behalf. 

In a leaked recording of the meeting, Duarte was heard agreeing with Zuma that going to the commission chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was “absolutely not a good thing’’. 

Duarte argued that, given the historical personal antagonism that exists between the two, and the unfortunate way in which Zondo presented himself after he presided over his own case of bias, Zuma should be afforded another judge to preside over his testimony at the commission. 

Another high-profile ANC leader, Malusi Gigaba, also spoke on behalf of Zuma at the NEC meeting; suffice to say that this was expected. 

Gigaba — together with other NEC leaders, including ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini, and Tony Yengeni, to name just a couple — has remained loyal to Zuma during his many court challenges, claiming that the judiciary and the commission are targeting the elderly leader. 

Even Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal — the ANC’s biggest province — has been conflicted in how it deals with the former president’s impending incarceration. 

Premier Sihle Zikalala, who is also the ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, took to social media shortly after acting chief justice Sisi Khampepe read out her damning judgment, seemingly criticising the judgment for its far-reaching implications for the ANC and country. 

“President [sic]  Zuma remains one of those who sacrificed a lot for this country,” wrote Zikalala. He is a key figure in KwaZulu-Natal politics, having led the youth formation in the province. 

It was not long ago that ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli told the Mail & Guardian that the party would leverage Zuma’s popularity in this year’s local government elections, referring to him as the “darling of the people”. 

A Ramaphosa lieutenant in the NEC, who wished to remain anonymous, told the M&G they feared that the Constitutional Court judgment could further divide the ANC. The image of the 80-year-old veteran, handcuffed and whisked away to the nearest KwaZulu-Natal correctional services facility might tip the scales “marginally” slightly against Ramaphosa, they added. 

The source reasoned that although emotions will undoubtedly be heightened when the ANC meets virtually this weekend, Ramaphosa cannot be blamed for the consequences of Zuma’s defiance. 

“In the ANC, that aspect is bound to create a lot of emotions. Sometimes people act on that basis. It’s not exciting. I, myself, am not happy, but there is not much one can do,” the source said. 

“It will be a debate, but what is good is that the ANC officials have tried to engage the former president. So it’s not as if this is something we just ignored. The ANC has been put in a very precarious situation, because this is not a good thing for a former ANC president to go through. It doesn’t [paint] a good picture for the ANC,” they added. 

Although the four NEC members, who all spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity, agreed that the consequences of Zuma’s incarceration may deepen divisions within the ANC, three of them felt it would have no bearing on the NEC’s decision on whether Magashule should face the disciplinary hearing, a move that will secure his expulsion. 

This weekend, the NEC will deliberate on a report from its chief presenter, Uriel Abrahamse, which will undoubtedly call for Magashule to be disciplined. Abrahamse was tasked with investigating whether Magashule could be charged with a misdemeanor after he unceremoniously suspended Ramaphosa in an act of defiance. 

Magashule, a loyal ally of the former president, went to Nkandla to ask Zuma for help to mobilise for support when he was instructed to step aside. 

The NEC members say their biggest concern is a further rift between the ANC and the people in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“It may divide the NEC further, because there is always the view that there are some of us who control the judiciary. It’s a tough one for the ANC. We also know his [Zuma’s] intentions,” the high-ranking Ramaphosa lieutenant said. “He wants to create instability and the ANC will be more unstable now. KZN might be more unstable, but maybe it’s necessary to get to this point so that we get over it.” 

Another possible point of contention is the precedent set by the ruling. 

An NEC member and Magashule supporter said this could come back to bite Ramaphosa and his cabinet. 

They cautioned that the judiciary has exacerbated the issues in the NEC and created a precedent that “you can be incarcerated without a trial”. 

“The death of many South Africans because of government inconsistency in our vaccine programme and the R500-billion that has been misused can be considered as an indirect crime against humanity. If we have a mad president one day, they may take the president to the Constitutional Court and imprison him with just an affidavit,” the source said. 

“Precedents are very dangerous. This can come back to bite the sitting president and ministers. It is a judgment that some of us in the NEC will see as an infringement on the former president’s right to a fair trial. Many of us wonder if we will be next,” the party leader and NEC member said. 

A provincial leader with links to Ramaphosa said he anticipated that Zuma and his loyalists may try to deepen divisions between traditional ethnic groups. 

“Zuma was a close friend of the King [Zwelithini]. There may be a pressure point for KZN. When he appears with handcuffs we may see some part of the province revolting,” the provincial player said.  

Even though the former president wields some significant support in the NEC, with many of its members benefiting from his terms in office, his influence over branches is exaggerated. 

Although branches may be the bedrock of the ANC, evidence shows that local challenges play a more dominant role in their politics. Politics of the stomach supersede the feeble fights at national level, one branch leader said pessimistically. 

Lately, branch meetings have been marred by violence, with members fighting for council positions. 

This week, Duarte sent a memorandum to branches announcing that conferences would be delayed and the national general council meeting postponed. This could calm any stormy waters forming at branch level against the dominant Ramaphosa faction. 

With the MKMVA disbanded, the women’s league fractured and the youth league in tatters, it begs the question: What will Zuma’s impending incarceration mean at branch level? 

The even bigger question is whether Zuma’s sentence will result in a drop in support for Ramaphosa at the party’s upcoming provincial and regional elective conferences.

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Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa is a political journalist with a keen interest in local government.

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