There have been many heated national executive committee (NEC) meetings in the ANC’s nearly 105-year existence. It is rare, however, for NEC members to openly accuse each other of being “counter-revolutionaries” and “acting on behalf of your handlers”. The debate over the call for President Jacob Zuma to step down was so intense that two NEC members reportedly nearly came to blows. Compared to the surgical strike against Thabo Mbeki in 2008, Zuma appears to be invincible. In truth, the rebellion against Mbeki began years before his recall. Now that the revolt against Zuma has gone to the highest level of the ANC, he is in for a hell ride as his term inelegantly disintegrates. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
On Sunday, while this weekend’s highly charged ANC NEC discussion about him stepping down was underway, President Jacob Zuma was out of the meeting hall, briefly attending to other business. In a private holding room at St George’s Hotel in Irene, where the NEC was held, Zuma was approached by an NEC member who thought he should have a heart-to-heart with the president away from the fury of the meeting. The person asked whether in light of all the concerns raised by NEC members, ANC veterans, civil society and ordinary South Africans about his leadership and conduct, Zuma would not consider a dignified exit.
Zuma’s response was blunt. He said he would never resign as that would be giving into “imperialist forces”. He said he was “not about to please the enemy”.
That, of course, was the end of that discussion.
Zuma had pretty much the same message to the NEC when he closed the meeting after three days of blistering debate between those who believe it is time for him to go and those who fiercely defend him. He said there was a sinister plot to discredit him and remove him from office driven by Western powers working through various parties and organisations in South Africa. This evil plot was manifesting in various ways and was the source of all his troubles, according to Zuma.
This is the caveat for anyone hoping to appeal to reason or Zuma’s conscience. He does not believe any of the criticism against him is valid; neither does he believe that his conduct has massive negative implications for his organisation and the country.
In Zuma’s echo chamber of allies and flunkies, that is the prevailing belief – Nkandla, state capture, South Africa’s economic woes, Fees Must Fall, the SABC commotion are all being orchestrated to shame Zuma and his government. Sometimes the logic is so stretched that they convince themselves that officials at the Independent Electoral Commission colluded with four young women to embarrass the president when they staged the rape awareness protest during the election results ceremony in August.
During the NEC debate, ANC Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile was attacked for attending the Save South Africa event in support of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The Save South Africa campaign is viewed by Zuma and his allies as a Western-funded project to mobilise for “regime change” – straight out of the Robert Mugabe conspiracy theory playbook.
It is wild accusations such as these and labels of NEC members being “counter-revolutionaries” that were used to discredit the arguments of those who contended that Zuma’s leadership was destructive. With so much evidence mounting of the Guptas’ hold on the president, some members of his Cabinet and the “premier league” faction, people lined up to attack their comrades raising concerns rather than to confront the disturbing reality of political corruption infesting their organisation.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said at a media briefing on Tuesday the call for Zuma to step down was not acceded to after those who advocated for it were “persuaded” otherwise. He said after a “robust” debate, “the NEC did not support the call for the president to step down”.
“The NEC took time to elaborate on what we have previously identified as a negative narrative directed towards the president,” Mantashe said. “Our view is that it was discussed sufficiently exhaustively and it’s a closed matter now.”
The outcome of the NEC and the messaging from the ANC is markedly different to what Mantashe announced after an NEC meeting in September 2008.
“Following the decision of the national executive committee of the African National Congress to recall President Thabo Mbeki, the president has obliged and will step down after all constitutional requirements have been met,” Mantashe said then. “Our movement has been through a trying period and we are determined to heal the rift that might exist. In light of this and after a long and difficult discussion, the ANC has decided to recall the president of the republic before his term of office expires.”
Many observers have been wondering how it was possible that just a week after the judgment by Judge Chris Nicholson that pronounced that Mbeki was involved in a political conspiracy against Zuma, the ANC NEC recalled him. Yet, with Zuma tormenting the organisation and the country for years, the ANC cannot act against him.
While the Nicholson judgment provided the firelighter for the explosion, the rebellion against Mbeki had been brewing from around 2001. Cosatu and the South African Communist Party began criticising Mbeki over the GEAR macroeconomic strategy years before that. Mbeki’s stance on Aids and his approach to Zimbabwe and crime led to much public criticism and built antagonism towards him. By 2005, the ANC was split into camps over Zuma’s corruption investigation and firing as country’s deputy president. At the 2005 ANC national general council, Mbeki faced a backlash from delegates, the majority of whom sided with Zuma.
More than three years after the tide turned against Mbeki at that 2005 NGC and after losing the ANC presidency to Zuma in December 2007, he was recalled. Therefore, it is not true that he was removed in one fell swoop while Zuma continues to bamboozle his way through crisis after crisis.
While it might seem that Zuma was able to crush dissent and survive the NEC revolt, what happened this weekend was the cranking open of a hitherto closed space for frank dialogue.
It seems somewhat bizarre that NEC members Bheki Cele and Nathi Mthethwa nearly came to blows during an argument about the Marikana massacre, over four years after it happened. The reason for this is there was never an opportunity before for honest discussion about the failures and disasters of the Zuma administration. With all the dirty linen being aired at the meeting, even long buried issues like the failure to take responsibility for the Marikana massacre could be confronted.
In all his years of wriggling through scandals and controversy, Zuma has never been openly confronted by the ANC about his conduct. Now he has – both by the ANC veterans and his NEC comrades. No matter what fantastic conspiracy he wants to flag, he cannot escape the fact that the ANC elders and a significant portion of the ANC’s highest decision-making body between national conferences believe that he has failed as president and should go.
The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
Zuma will continue to be challenged – as has been happening behind closed doors at Cabinet meetings. He now knows that ministers who spoke out against him are not afraid of losing their jobs – in fact they are daring him to fire them. If Zuma does purge his detractors in Cabinet, he will simply be releasing them from their official duties to campaign against him full time in ANC structures. Since he cannot remove them as MPs, Zuma will also be instigating a rebellion against himself in the ANC caucus. With the caucus being his last line of defence against the opposition in Parliament, that would be a dangerous gamble.
The call for Zuma to step down was not put to the vote in the NEC, so the support for and against him is untested. When he stands up to deliver the NEC statement at the ANC’s January 8 anniversary celebrations, he will not know who supports him and who does not. In the year until his term as ANC president expires, Zuma will be burdened with the knowledge that he does not enjoy the confidence of an undetermined part of the senior-most structure of the ANC.
The matter of Zuma’s leadership has been left to the ANC’s top six officials to deal with. It is unlikely that they will come up with a ground-breaking solution to the problem. While Zuma has numerous legal processes pending and might still try to push through controversial decisions, such as the Gupta-sponsored banking inquiry and the nuclear build programme, he is likely to be continuously questioned and challenged from inside the ANC.
And while he can defend himself for as long as he is ANC president, Zuma will know from Mbeki’s experience that his ability to survive as state president will be greatly diminished once he is no longer the head of the party.
The outcome of the NEC was a reprieve, not a stay of execution. Zuma now has an axe firmly over his head – not wielded by his imagined “enemies”, but by those who call him “comrade”. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma speaks at the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
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