South Africa

Retirement Plan like no other: Show No Fear

By Stephen Grootes 2 June 2015

President Jacob Zuma is slowly approaching the end of his political career. That may seem a strange thing to say, but politics is all about power. And in our current situation, that power stems from how much control you have within the ANC. It’s not a stretch to assume Zuma’s second term as ANC President, that is due to come to an end in December 2017, will be his last. Which will leave him, as state president, in perhaps the most vulnerable position of his career, a series of enemies already made, and very little patronage and future power left to fight them. Could his current behaviour mean he knows his number’s nearly up? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The last few days have seen much anguished commentary about the Nkandla scandal. Critics have intimated that Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko is playing us all for fools, with an implausible video of the local fire department in action (in some places, that video would have been the start of a full inquiry into that fire-fighting department; here, among urban elites, it’s just taken as a joke).

Some have suggested that the current state of affairs shows Zuma is actually a president-for-life in waiting; others have warned, darkly, that it is a “tipping point”, the moment at which the ANC simply lost the moral high-ground. Many predict the ANC will lose several metros next year as a result of this particular Zuma moment.

Some or all of this may or may not be true. There has been warning after warning that the ANC is about to lose power in a big way, and to date it has not actually happened. But it is actually more important to examine why Zuma is behaving the way he is these days in the first place.

Wednesday’s scene in Parliament was certainly a display of arrogance in action. But it did come at a cost. Zuma would have known that among the urban middle class, the “clever blacks” that make up part of his constituency, many people would take offence. Imagine, they would say, what would have happened if Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema had mocked the way Zuma speaks in English in the way he mocked them. There would not have been enough police officers in the Western Cape to keep Maimane safe from the physical violence that would have ensued from ANC MPs if that had happened.

So then, why would Zuma do it?

If there is one thing we know about him, it is that he has a full appreciation of political power, how to use it, and how to keep it. And, more than anyone, he knows how vulnerable you can be when you occupy the Union Buildings, but not Luthuli House. It was he, and he alone, who had the power to save Mbeki in 2008, and he did not use that power. Which set a rather nasty precedent.

That may well mean it is very, very important for Zuma, now, not to show any weakness in any way. He must do the opposite. He must show strength at any opportunity. He must look more like he is in charge now than he ever has been.

In some ways, this is relatively easy. Having now been president for six years, he’s managed to consolidate his power. Institutions like the police, the NPA, the Hawks, perhaps even SARS, are within his palm. It’s easy to introduce to the political lexicon the word “Nkaaandla” when you know exactly how the person you appointed is going to behave the next day.

In this scenario, the main audience Zuma was playing to last week was not the opposition, no matter how satisfying that may have been. It was actually the ANC itself. He had to show he was in charge; his message had to be:

Don’t screw with me now, and don’t screw with me in the future.

There are other recent events that suggest Zuma is preparing for his political retirement. For him, one of the biggest elements of this planning is to ensure the head of the NPA is onside. He can do this in at least two ways; he can appoint someone friendly literally as he leaves office. That would give him a ten-year breathing space. The other strand, of course, is to ensure that the person who runs the ANC after him will protect him.

Certainly, Zuma seems to be suggesting, as far as he is able, that his ex-wife, and current AU Commission Chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, should take over. Hints at the country being “ready for a woman president” certainly suggest this. Particularly when you take into account that Zuma is not the most enlightened person when it comes to gender equality.

It could well be important now to start to look for other signals as to how Zuma is planning for retirement. Perhaps he may mastermind the creation of some new position within the ANC, something to do with ‘Immediate Past President’, or some other title, which might allow him to still sit at the top table, should he need to. Maybe, we will see other slight nudges behind Dlamini-Zuma, or perhaps, through a strange set of circumstances involving the Farlam Commission’s Marikana Report, Cyril Ramaphosa will suddenly start to take on serious water.

Or we will just see more behaviour like this by Zuma – this arrogance, this throwing around of his political weight. It would not be a nice sight to watch. But it may actually be a sign of a worried man, rather than a symbol of a powerful leader.

All of this doesn’t mean that there will not be a political cost as a result of this behaviour. There will be. But it won’t be Zuma who bears it; it will be the ANC itself. It will be the party itself who suffers for Zuma’s actions and behaviour. But the power of the ANC does not appear to be as important to Zuma as his own power within the ANC. If it were, we would see service delivery in South Africa and not the crumbling infrastructure. DM

Photo: South African president, Jacob Zuma during the State Of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, 12 February 2015. EPA/RODGER BOSCH/POOL


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