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Game of Pawns: No good options for Zuma any more

South Africa

South Africa, Politics

Game of Pawns: No good options for Zuma any more

On Tuesday it appeared that President Jacob Zuma was back on the offensive. The ANC’s National Working Committee (NWC) was throwing shade on Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report, telling all and sundry that Zuma should select the judge to investigate whether he himself is responsible for how the Gupta family have managed to do so well through their manipulation of people he deployed. The message was simple – Zuma is still very much in charge of what matters. And what matters is the state security machinery, and the internal structure of the ANC. But what is good for Zuma is generally bad for the ANC and could lead to it losing national power in just three years’ time. This would appear to mean that his options are narrowing, and are becoming more limited over time. Some could put this much more starkly – that what is at stake is nothing less than the forces of Zuma against accountability and democracy. What then, is Zuma’s end-game strategy? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The founder of the Robben Island Chess Club is renowned for playing the long game. As we’ve seen over the last few years, sometimes it takes time to put your pawns in the right places, patience to move only when necessary, and real skill to remove your enemies when they are least expecting it. This means it is unlikely that he has not thought through even the current situation.

And his current situation is difficult. Evidence of wrongdoing by him and his pawns – and crucially, possibly implicating two of his children – is beginning to mount up. While the NWC and the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC still back him, as well as most provincial leaders, were the ordinary members of the ANC to have a vote tomorrow, there is strong evidence to suggest he would not survive that exercise. Worse, it appears to be no longer a certainty that the ANC will still be in power come second part of 2019, which means that he could also face prosecution.

Then we need to diagnose the actual problem. It is certain that he will have a greater and more informed understanding of what his situation is. But, from what we can ascertain, it seems that he has two major problems.

Keeping himself and his family out of jail and making sure they are safe and their income stream doesn’t dry out.

And keeping some, if not all, of the people who may have broken the law while working with him out of jail.

There is some space in which to move. While presumably he would never sacrifice family members, there are bound to be a few more pawns, and possibly even some more significant pieces that can be dispensed with, in order to protect the King.

All of that then said, what are his options to achieve these aims?

The first and most frightening is to find some way of remaining president. There is no way for him to do this democratically. It cannot happen. The ANC does not have a two-thirds majority, and it seems unlikely in the extreme that it could achieve that again in the near to medium future. And it certainly would not get support from opposition parties for this. By and large, they have been united by one thing only, their vociferous opposition to Zuma. Thus, the only way to do this would be by suspending the Constitution. Considering that this country is ungovernable at the best of times, and that the army doesn’t seem able to control itself half the time, the chances of this are literally tiny. Bear in mind as well that it would require huge organisation and plenty of other people to help him. There simply aren’t enough people like Nyameka Xaba in the world to help him do this.

Of course, there will be those who think that some sort of crisis could be manufactured to allow a state of emergency to be declared. Again, while some already feel parts of the #FeesMustFall protests look as though they are being nudged in the direction of chaos, too many others it feels simply not possible – this country is too cynical, and such an act would create too much opposition within the ANC itself. And again, he just doesn’t have enough henchpeople to help him successfully maintain this. And if he were to make such a move, the counter reaction against could be frightening in its intensity.

It would be much easier for Zuma to pursue what many people believe is the most likely option, to ensure that the person who takes over as president, of the ANC and of the country, is someone who will protect him.

Up until the local elections, this was the most obvious course.

However, the “rural/patronage” faction of the ANC lost significant support in those polls. This means that their negotiating power within the ANC is now more limited than it was. To over-simplify, it means that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s chances of winning an ANC election have gone down significantly. To improve her chances, this group, and Zuma himself, may not have to make bigger concessions. The chess player may have to allow more pawns and even some other more significant pieces to be sacrificed, to ensure that he is protected. This could mean that the negotiating position of the “urban/reformist” faction is strengthened.

The other option is for Zuma himself to run for a third term as ANC leader, and to “deploy” someone else as state president. This is what Thabo Mbeki tried to do in Polokwane. It was a failure then, and, as Peter Bruce and others have noted, it carries massive risks. Should Zuma overplay his hand in the ANC, there is a chance that he could face a rebellion in the party. He could go into an ANC election thinking he is going to win, but find that he loses, exactly as Mbeki did. This option then is very, very risky.

Another option would be for Zuma to simply hold on to power for as long as possible, and then prepare to fight it out in the courts. He may have one or two legal options left to keep himself from being charged, and to try to stop the case from happening. The march of time could impact on parts of the case against him. That said, anyone who saw the 19 lever-arch files of evidence presented in the Schabir Shaik trial will know that that evidence still exists, and cannot be made to disappear easily. He could probably make a case that the state would have to pay for his legal costs, as these acts were committed while he was in office (first as KZN Finance and Tourism MEC, then as Deputy President, and then possibly as President). He could also assume that much of the country simply wouldn’t have the stomach to push for his prosecution, as he would be very much yesterday’s news.

But that too is a risky strategy. The ANC under a new leader could find itself full of fury at losing so much political power and decide to make an example of him; Shaun Abrahams could be removed as NPA head and replaced by someone independent who pursues the case with vigour, or an opposition party could still win and decide it’s time to make him pay for what he has allegedly done.

To sum up then, it appears at this stage as if our chess champion’s options all carry inherent risk. In one way, this is a testament to the democratic architecture of our nation. But in another way, as we have already seen, one move is to push as hard as possible against this architecture, in the hope of bringing down enough of the house around him. Even with this option, he is running out of space, and there are no longer enough squares on the board. But he is not a champion for nothing, there may be other options that we cannot see. It is those moves that are going to be the most interesting over the next few months. The time available for this match is running out, and the clock is ticking. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma waves at the crowd after arriving at the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria on Thursday, 18 July 2013 to visit former president Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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