South Africa

South Africa

More Zuma, more Zumocracy: What’s behind the bid to extend the president’s term?

More Zuma, more Zumocracy: What’s behind the bid to extend the president’s term?

It is not inconceivable, just unthinkable. The ANC in the North West is proposing that President Jacob Zuma’s term as the party leader be extended by two years. This is to align the elected terms of the party and government. Zuma’s second term as ANC president will end in December 2017 and he will cease to be state president in mid 2019. So why do sections of the Zuma camp really want him to stay on? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

No, it is not a bad joke. The ANC in the North West adopted a resolution at its provincial general council last weekend to align the ANC leadership and government terms. This means that at the next ANC national conference in 2017, they want the party to postpone electing a new leadership team until 2019.

The North West believes that the two-year break between electing the party leadership and the team serving in government creates two centres of power – especially regarding the presidency. Their worry is that if there is a new ANC president elected while someone else is serving out their term as state president – as was the case after the Polokwane conference when Zuma was elected ANC president and Thabo Mbeki was state president – it creates tension between Luthuli House and the Union Buildings.

So in order to overcome this dilemma, the North West ANC is proposing that Zuma kindly stay on for another two years as the party leader so that a new ANC and state president be elected in 2019.

(You are allowed to pause reading here to wipe your tears.)

Yes, the electricity situation is dire. Yes, the economy is under severe strain. And of course South Africa appears to be hurtling without clear leadership for several years, under the burden of unemployment, poor economic growth, failing state institutions, high crime and poverty. Hopelessnes is all around us.


You’ve already been told it’s not the current administration’s fault. And just because you think South Africa desperately needs someone who knows what’s going on does not mean that the power brokers do.

With the current electoral system, the presidency is entirely dependent on the ruling party. And not the entire party at that. The way the ANC is structured means that about 4,000 voting delegates out of over a million members get to decide who the party president is. The party’s candidate for state president is decided by an even smaller group at a list conference, although nominations come from ANC branches throughout the country.

Does the ANC know that South Africa is in crisis under Zuma’s leadership? Of course it does. The ANC was aware that Zuma was not the best person to be head of state when they re-elected him at the Mangaung national conference in 2012. It retained him as the party leader for reasons other than good leadership and those reasons are still relevant now.

Having Zuma as the party leader serves the interests of the business and political power network that benefits from the status quo. The proximity of key figures in the network to Zuma and those around him give them leverage in business and political circles, which helps the network financially and politically. From municipalities to provinces to the Cabinet, there are groups of people who control the levers of power to benefit themselves and a select band of connected people in the private sector, in the trade unions and in state-owned companies. These people have amassed substantial wealth over the past few years and fear losing their strategic positions when there is a shift in power.

That network was just beginning to extend its tentacles in 2012 and therefore could not be disturbed by the Forces of Change move to replace Zuma with former Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. This meant that any form of dissent against Zuma had to be crushed or contained.

With Zuma now well into his second term as state president, he is effectively a lame duck (not that he was an energetic one before that). The focus is shifting from him to who the next leader might be. This will cause the sands to shift and threaten those profiting from the status quo. What threatens the power elite most is that the likely candidate to succeed Zuma is too much of a wild card.

Cyril Ramaphosa, while marching in line to Zuma’s tune now, is not guaranteed to do so if he becomes president. There is no saying whether he will allow the power network to maintain its dominance or cause power to shift to a new group of people. Ramaphosa is playing his cards close to his chest and not willing to engage on his future plans, even with the power brokers in the ANC. This they find unsettling as it is difficult to gauge whether Ramaphosa is just being discreet and cautious or whether he plans to play his own game when the time comes.

ANC national conferences are a game of chess moves between the key provinces, with behind-the-scenes trade-offs for positions in the top six and the national executive committee. Motlanthe refused to allow his supporters to make deals on his behalf – in fact he refused to indicate whether he would even contest the ANC presidency until the eleventh hour. It would make people very nervous if Ramaphosa did the same.

There is absolutely no doubt that Ramaphosa wants to be president. The problem for the power brokers is that Ramaphosa has always indicated that if he becomes president, it will be on his own terms and he does not want to be in a bruising leadership battle. He quit active politics previously because of the contestation between him and Mbeki. He can quite easily throw in the towel again and return to his business empire.

Ramaphosa cannot also be seduced by what the power network can offer him or his family as he has sufficient wealth on his own. He could very well turn out to be his own man, who refuses to be controlled.

Gauteng, traditionally a very influential province, has already indicated that it is backing Ramaphosa for the presidency. The other provinces have not yet staked their bets and will find it difficult doing so. It is not yet clear who the other candidates might be who could challenge Ramaphosa. Zuma has hinted at the possibility of having a woman as president “sooner than you think”, and the two names so far in contention are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the African Union Commission chairperson, and Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete.

Mbete, as the current national chairperson of the ANC, would most likely service the current power network. But her popularity in the ANC is uncertain. Not even the ANC Women’s League seems confident enough to back her as their candidate for president.

Dlamini-Zuma has shown in the past to play by her own rules. While KwaZulu-Natal is her home province, she defied the Zuma camp in 2007 when she stood on the Mbeki slate. While she has pockets of support in KwaZulu-Natal now, there is no indication that she is that province’s preferred candidate. Her loyalty to Mbeki in the past also creates nervousness about whether she will break the prevailing political-business power network should she ascend to power.

With so much uncertainty around, Zuma remains the only safe bet. No matter how close to the brink the country teeters under his presidency, those in power still benefit. And even with the electricity out, money and deals can be made. In any event, extending the leadership crisis is preferable to being personally out of the circle of influence.

Therefore, consideration has been given to how to extend Zuma’s presidency and postpone the succession debate. The proposal to align the party and state terms of office looks innocent enough, and could sound reasonable in light of the problems that arose when Zuma was ANC president and Mbeki state president. If the proposal had come from KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home base and the biggest province in voting numbers, it would have already caused waves in the ANC.

With the proposal coming from the North West, it seems somewhat innocuous. What it is doing is testing the waters to see how much support it would garner. The timing is also not incidental. With the ANC’s mid-term national general council (NGC) scheduled for June, it is the right time to get branches talking. The main function of an NGC is to review implementation of policies and programmes in between national conferences.

It will not be easy railroading such a proposal through. Postponing leadership elections will require a change to the ANC’s constitution, which can only be done by a two-thirds majority of voting delegates at a national conference or a special conference. The NGC does not have the power to change the ANC constitution.

So if the proposal to keep Zuma on till 2019 is discussed and supported at the NGC, a special conference would have to be called to change the constitution, or the amendment would have to wait until the 2017 national conference. It is a big gamble, as a whole range of things can change in two years.

Over the next few months, expect the discussion to pick up momentum.

There is of course one other option that would keep the power elite happy: if Zuma wins a third term as party president. Because there is no cap on presidential terms in the ANC, Zuma could very well run for a third term at the 2017 conference. If he wins, he will get his preferred candidate to run as state president in the 2019 elections. The South African Constitutions prohibits a third term as state president, but as long as Zuma remains ANC leader, the network is firmly embedded.

Extending the Zumocracy is not as far fetched as you might think. Zuma has beaten the odds to become president, and then win a second term. The Teflon man could still be with us till 2022, as leader of the ANC. He will then still be 10 years younger than Robert Mugabe is now.

If the course of events in South African politics has shown anything, it is that nothing is impossible, particularly when it comes to one Jacob G. Zuma. DM

Original photo: South African President Jacob Zuma celebrated his 70th birthday at the Luthuli House on 12 April 2012. (Jordi Matas)


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