South Africa, Politics

#ZExit: There must be 50 ways to lose your President

By Stephen Grootes 18 April 2016

Since the start of the year, the big political question has not been the local government elections, or what really happened at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. The big political question is a simple: “Will President Jacob Zuma stay, or will he go?”. Coming after the firing of Nhlanhla Nene, and then the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla ruling, it’s no surprise that there is more pressure on Zuma than ever. But those who think it’s easy to kick someone out are misguided. That said, there are several scenarios that could play out over the next few months. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

At the moment the end of the Zuma era looks almost inevitable. Surely no one political figure can go through as many scandals as Zuma has, and survive? And yet, his most fanatical of supporters (well-known democrats like the ANC Women’s League, the ANC Youth League and their peace-loving, CIA-admiring friends at the Umkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association) are certain that he will stay on.

This is of course the scariest scenario. If Zuma remains in charge, if he and the people around him are able to stay on in power and govern as they have been, after all of this – after the Gupta scandal, the probable reinstatement of corruption charges, the Nkandla ConCourt ruling – then surely those people will have the power to decide who will win the ANC’s 2017 leadership election.

In other words, if Zuma and his faction can survive all of the above, they will be able to possibly decide the direction South Africa will take even until 2029. And that could mean then, that the patterns of governance, the mismanagement, the corruption, will just be entrenched. Something would have to break.

If you were not sober when you started reading this, you probably are now.

But that is only the beginning of our possibilities.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that one of the issues that drives Zuma’s behaviour is the fear of jail, the fear that he could be prosecuted for the matters arising out of the conviction of Schabir Shaik, then we can presume that this can also be used as a carrot. So, perhaps, some sort of political deal could be struck where he is assured that he will not be prosecuted. In return, a move that could take all of the political heat off him would be to announce, publicly, that he is going to step down as State President after the ANC’s 2017 leadership election.

This would solve a number of problems. One of the reasons that Zuma seems safe from a recall at the moment is that he is leader of the ANC, and there is an ANC resolution that the president of the ANC should be president of the country. That means it could require a special conference to get him out, and if that were held, that could be the conference at which the ANC would split. (Such a conference could also take place only by the end of the year, which is an aeon in today’s politics – many things could fundamentally change by then, possibly to Zuma’s benefit). His announced pre-resignation could get around all of that, while setting a timetable for his exit as president. It would mollify his critics, and give everyone in the ANC time to manage it. It would also ensure that any fight among those who want to take over from him is contained in some way, in that it would have a specified end-date.

But Zuma’s problem is that he cannot trust anyone that the deal will stick. Liberia’s Charles Taylor went to Nigeria on the assurance that he would not be sent off to The Hague for commiting crimes against humanity. He is currently in jail. Zuma has the same problem. Even if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma assumes the throne next year, it’s a brave man who would trust his freedom to his ex-wife. Especially as she has shown some Mbeki-ite tendencies in the past.

There are those, including Max du Preez, who think that some sort of legal solution exists to this problem. He believes that perhaps an act of Parliament that indemnifies a sitting president could be introduced, with the hope that that act would then be withdrawn when a new president is elected. But that seems impractical. First, the Constitution specifies that, “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” Any law that treats one person differently to everyone else would surely fall foul of that. And of course, it would be a vain hope that any sitting president would ever feel it was in their interests to repeal such an act.

But an option that could work is that of the presidential pardon. They do not appear to be reviewable – in other words, who the president pardons is pardoned, full stop. But there may be a complication in that Zuma has not been convicted of anything.

Perhaps a more likely scenario that could play out over the next two years is that Zuma is told by those forces ranged against him that he can stay on but he has to change how he governs. He essentially loses the power to make big decisions on his own, and by “consultation” the ANC will now really mean consultation. The problem with this is that we may never actually know that this has happened. That could end up sending conflicting signals. Zuma’s allies, including the increasingly nonsensical Women’s League, will claim that he has all the power, while his enemies will claim that he does not. It will also be very difficult to tell who made important decisions and why, which will make it harder to predict what will happen in the future. And of course, there would be constant tension between Zuma and Luthuli House.

That can hardly be the best option.

The option that many in the Gauteng ANC-supporting middle classes are hoping for, the exit of Zuma some time before the end of the year, seems to be receding. But, the local polls could provide a shock or two for the ANC, and end up forcing some kind of urgent action. It’s getting harder and harder for the party to justify itself on the campaign trail. Were leaders to start feeling that anger for themselves, were Bathabile Dlamini to be reduced to tears more often, perhaps people might start thinking about life after Zuma. And of course, a ruling that the NPA must reinstate the corruption charges emanating from the Shaik case would strengthen the case for action.

But probably more important is the process that seems to be under way in ANC branches. The Gauteng ANC is talking up its branch meetings, probably secure in the knowledge that ordinary members will back their play against Zuma. It’s surely impossible for Luthuli House to act against branches and regions and provinces that simply reflect the wishes of their members. To punish people for doing that is to provoke a split, all but inviting further punishment at the polls further down the line. It is possible, but probably unlikely for the moment, for this rebellion by branches to spread. Were that to happen, part of the party could become almost ungovernable for Zuma, which could lead to some kind of action against him.

No matter which scenario plays out, it’s clear that our politics is going to be fairly unstable for a while. In fact, probably until at least the end of next year. It is only then that we can hope to get any stability back into the system. However, after that, things could look a lot better, in that the ANC is surely going to get punished at the polls. And that would then strengthen the incentive for whoever takes over from Zuma to govern better and more responsibly, though that is not much of a difficult task right now.

Or, Just slip out the back, Jake. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma attends the China – South Africa Economy Forum at a hotel in Beijing, China, 05 December 2014. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL