South Africa

Zuma checkmates his last opponent; new game coming soon

By Ranjeni Munusamy 16 July 2013

After months of looking over his shoulder, Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale finally got the call he had been expecting. So in the same manner former president Thabo Mbeki accepted the will of the ANC and fell on his sword, Mathale resigned from the Limpopo provincial legislature, giving effect to a “recall” from his post. It all appears to be part of President Jacob Zuma’s grand plan to consolidate his power ahead of next year’s election. But among those who think the ANC is heading for a bigger crisis is the ruling party’s former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma is apparently a patron of an organisation called “Moves for Life”, an organisation promoting the game of chess among underprivileged children. Zuma learnt the game while imprisoned on Robben Island and wants to promote it to improve strategic thinking amongst the youth. Over the weekend, the president took on a five-year-old boy in a friendly game during the 2013 Commonwealth and South African Open Chess Championship in Port Elizabeth. The game against the little boy apparently ended in a stalemate.

President Zuma appears to be engaged in a greater game of chess in his government, making a number of moves and changes to clear the way to the 2014 national elections campaign. After his overwhelming victory at the ANC 53rd national conference in Mangaung in December, Zuma pledged that there would not be a cleanout of those who opposed his second term as ANC president, saying they had a democratic right to do so.

However, over the past seven months, the ANC headquarters has moved strategically and deliberately to deal with what was known as the “Forces of Change”. The group was a loose formation of those who thought they could replace Zuma as ANC president with his then deputy in the party, Kgalema Motlanthe. Those identified with the campaign included the ANC in Limpopo and Gauteng, the ANC Youth League and anti-Zuma factions in the North West, the Eastern Cape and Free State.

But Zuma and his supporters were ahead of the game long before the conference started. By booting former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema out of the party, Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe ensured that the chief campaigner of the Forces of Change was disabled and unable to address any ANC meeting. The North West faction fell apart when the former provincial secretary Kabelo Mataboge was suspended and was not even allowed to attend the Mangaung conference.

While the anti-Zuma faction in the Free State managed to prevent that province from voting at Mangaung through court action, the small number of delegates meant that there was not a huge impact on the final results. The Zuma camp still swept the floor.

Since then, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) has declared war on those who take the party to court, saying this was grounds for expulsion. The anti-Zuma faction in the Free State therefore outlived its usefulness and provincial premier and chairman Ace Magashule and his camp have been re-elected into the province’s leadership without much trouble.

The biggest cleanout has been in the ANC Youth League, with the leadership dismantled, and any remnants of support for Malema demolished. A national task team was established to take over the running of the league and re-establish its structures.

The ANC’s Limpopo provincial executive committee was disbanded, and also replaced with a task team to manage of the party’s affairs in the province. This put the provincial premier Cassel Mathale and his supporters on notice that the axe would fall. While Zuma does not have prerogative to appoint premiers in the way he appoints members of his Cabinet, the ANC nominates premier candidates which the provincial legislatures (the eight currently run by the ANC) then elect as head of the province.

So the ANC needed Mathale to play nicely and do as he was told: resign from the legislature and don’t kick up too much dust.

On Monday, Mathale complied.

Last week, as part of a Cabinet reshuffle, Zuma removed one of the figureheads of the campaign against him, Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale also went quietly, as he has also been living on borrowed time since Mangaung. It is unlikely that Zuma would make changes to his Cabinet again before the next election – except if there is a death or a resignation – so it would be that the only two survivors from the Forces of Change are Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.

Mashatile survives due to the strength of his support in Gauteng. Because of the Democratic Alliance’s very effective campaigning in that province, the ANC is going to have to fight tooth and nail to retain control, which means Mashatile will have to be the point man during the election campaign. Nobody else in the ANC in Gauteng holds his sway, and Zuma would be cutting off his nose to spite his face had he decided to punish Mashatile along with Sexwale.

Mbalula’s situation is more complex. He was an extremely effective campaigner for the ANC in the 2009 elections but his ejection from the NEC in Mangaung means that he has no leadership status in the party at present. Straight after the Mangaung conference, Mbalula called a press conference but then suddenly cancelled it without explanation. It has never been revealed what he intended to announce and what made him change his mind.

It could be that he intended to make public his frustrations with the outcome of the conference but was convinced to suck it up. It is also possible that since then, he has reconciled with Zuma, even if it is to pledge that there would be no more trouble from him. He certainly has toned down the rhetoric and has (publicly) kept his distance from his former protégé, Malema. Mbalula also had no knowledge of the formation of Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, and is not one of those using Malema as a front to lash out at Zuma. This could also have saved him.

The biggest sitting duck, however, is Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Motlanthe complied with Zuma’s wishes to remain in government after Mangaung, and has been biding his time in Parliament and occasionally addressing public meetings. He has no role in the ANC and therefore has no power and is not involved in any decision-making whatsoever.

Motlanthe has become government’s chief handyman, being sent out by the president to attend to problems such as the conundrum over e-tolls and the crisis in the mining industry. Motlanthe is clearly not returning to government after the next elections, but until then, he has to remain under Zuma’s thumb.

After Zuma’s Cabinet re-shuffle last week, it could have dawned on Motlanthe that he has nothing to lose as Zuma has made his last chess move with his executive. This could explain why he made rather bold and forthright statements about the ANC in an interview with the Financial Times.

In his first commentary about the ANC since losing against Zuma in Mangaung, Motlanthe said “vested personal interests” were preventing the movement from being more united and effective, and the problems of the ANC are likely to deepen in the short term.

“If it does not pay attention to the importance of being relevant to the people of South Africa then it will run the risk of losing power,” Motlanthe told the Financial Times. He said the possible loss of support “worries me a great deal”.

“It’s definitely not going to be an easy election…people assess a party not on the basis of its glorious history but on the basis of what they experience.”

Asked whether the ANC will be able to turn itself around, Motlanthe said: “The crisis must reach its apex first… I think it will be self-delusion to believe it’s something that can self-correct. It has to get worse first.”

In rare public criticism of the current ANC leadership, which Motlanthe noted was “vastly different” from the ANC in 1994, the deputy president said he was concerned about ANC members being “cut off” and expelled from the party.

“It’s just incomprehensible because it’s not political. I don’t think the motives are political. It’s more vested personal interests at play,” Motlanthe told the FT. “As an ANC member myself, there are things that I can’t comprehend and there are things that don’t make sense to me politically.”

Chess moves are not always understandable to the observer, and Motlanthe is clearly out of the game. Zuma’s move against Mathale was slow, painful, and eventually lethal. The board across from him stands empty, the Queen long toppled, and there are no more pieces to move against him.

But this was a game always controlled by Zuma. His challenge remains the games he cannot easily control. And there is one big game ahead in the next election, where there are many contenders, now including his nemesis Malema, and millions of judges. The stalemate with the five-year-old might be a sign of things to come. DM

Photo: Cassel Mathale (Greg Nicolson/NewsFire)

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