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Analysis: Reality Check – how strong is Zuma’s real...

South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Reality Check – how strong is Zuma’s real support base?

As we get closer to the ANC’s elective conference in December, the politics of the leadership contest appear more complicated and muddy, rather than clearer and better defined. We already know that some organisations have nailed their colours to the mast. But the real action is in the provinces. Over the weekend it emerged that the leader of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, had told an ANC Youth League conference that people should serve “neither white monopoly capital nor the emerging bourgeoisie”. And, far more interestingly, he said this specifically in the context of the Gupta family. While his words are open to several interpretations, this could suggest that President Zuma’s support in his home province might not be rock solid. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The importance of the role that the KwaZulu-Natal ANC played in the political developments of the last decade cannot be underestimated. Famously, it was the ANC in that province that first adopted Zuma’s campaign as its own. Such was the strength of its feeling on the matter that there were even mutterings that the provincial party might want to break away from the national ANC if he had lost at the Polokwane conference. In the run-up to Mangaung in in 2012, it was the ANC’s region of Ethekwini which first nominated Cyril Ramaphosa to become the Deputy President of the ANC. From that moment, it was clear that he would eventually become the Deputy President of the country. Through all of the scandal of Zuma’s first term, and into his second, KZN has been the bedrock of his support, even as the noise of the internal battle progressed into something of a thunder. Even in January, while at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Zikalala was stating that the provincial ANC believed Zuma should finish his term as ANC leader and President– which is not something the ANC in Gauteng would ever say.

In some ways, the dominant political dynamic within the ANC at the moment, the relationship between Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, is also a KZN affair. They are both from that province, and knew each other well during the Struggle.

In the end, elective conferences in the ANC come down to numbers. And KZN has had enough branches to become an unavoidable central factor in any leadership struggle, even after suffering the greatest loss of membership, as revealed at the NGC in October 2015. Which means, no matter what the ANC Women’s League may say in public, that this is the province to play for. We don’t know yet how many delegates it will send, but it is likely to still have the biggest contingent.

(As an aside, one of the people in charge of that process, Ignatius Jacobs, left Luthuli House this week, in the wake of the “paid tweets” scandal. That may well strengthen the hand of the secretary-general in the branch audit process.)

But the province has started to split. Dramatically. It started with the inability of the Ethekwini region to hold a leadership election. Eventually, it took four attempts to get some stability. Then those tensions played out in the rest of the province, and came to a head at the provincial conference in 2015. Zikalala ran against then KZN ANC leader and then-KZN Premier Senzo Mchunu, and won. Mchunu was eventually forced to resign as Premier. And he was not happy. He, and many supporters, have brought a court action aimed at nullifying the conference. Zikalala has said that he is “reaching out” to leaders, including Mchunu, which could suggest Mchunu might, legally, be in a strong position.

It is in this context that Zikalala said what he said over the weekend. In full, in a speech posted on the KZN ANC’s Facebook page, he says this:

The ANC and its leadership especially the President has been in constant attack. These attacks are led by the surrogates of the enemy of our revolution. The issue of Guptas capturing the state is just a contest of emerging bourgeoisie and the well stablished bourgeoisie. The established in the name of Ruperts; Anglo-American and others are protecting their territory being entered to by people like Guptas. Ours is not to defend any of the monopolies but the fight for the poor as the discipline force of the left.”

While these comments could be seen as (deliberately) ambiguous, it certainly appears to be saying that people should not support the Gupta family. This is interesting. Zikalala had once been thought to be a part of what was once called the “Premier League”. Certainly, he appeared to lean towards Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and certainly defended Zuma himself to the hilt. People who defend Zuma also tend to support the Guptas. A brief look at the public statements of the ANC Youth League (which has called for Pravin Gordhan to be fired), the ANC Women’s League (who have lapsed into a position of strong incomprehensibility) and North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo (whose political contribution so far this year is the proposed erection of a six-metre tall statue of Zuma, the introduction of the phrase “F*#& Off” into Hansard, and the nomination of Brian Molefe to Parliament). Zikalala appears to be taking a different position, that the Guptas are no better than the ANC’s old enemy, “monopoly capital”.

The question of course, is why, and what is he really planning. Certainly, it is an olive branch of some kind. Perhaps, as a relatively young man in this game, with a big future ahead of him, he wants to put some distance between himself and the worst aspects of Zuma’s era. Like, to an extent, the SACP, he may be thinking of the future, and realising how bad it would be to be remembered as someone who defended the Guptas. Or, he could even be signalling to Zuma himself that his support is not as strong, or as unconditional, as it used to be.

Then there are some other comments by Zikalala, around the leadership contest itself. City Press also reports that he wants to intervene in the situation to try to stop another “divisive conference”. He could be trying, perhaps, to head off an election altogether. It is becoming more and more obvious how damaging that leadership contest could be, so he may well be trying to head that off. What is interesting here is who would benefit from that kind of intervention. The former leader of the ANC in KZN, and a former Premier, is the ANC’s Treasurer, Zweli Mkhize. If there were to be some sort of uncontested outcome, he could be the person to benefit. But there are other permutations, in which Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma agree to bow out, under the right conditions. Although it’s hard at the moment to see what those conditions could be.

And then there is the timing of Zikalala’s statement. It was the day after Brian Molefe had been sworn in as an MP. Maybe, just maybe, it was saying to Zuma that pushing Molefe into some sort of position to benefit the Guptas would be taking things too far, even for them.

On Sunday, the SACP said pretty much the same thing, and criticised the nomination of Molefe to Parliament, and suggested that his appointment had been “ill-advised”. They also appeared to hint that they would be very angry if Gordhan were removed from Cabinet, and replaced by Molefe.

It is interesting to consider here if all of the reaction to Molefe’s appointment has made Zuma pause. While nothing is certain in our politics at the moment, and it is foolish to make any hard and fast predictions, it is curious that there has been so much heat around the Treasury generated by the Gupta-captured factions, and yet Zuma has not acted. The SACP is opposed, Gwede Mantashe appears to be against it, Mkhize would fight against it, and so would Ramaphosa. On Sunday the Sunday Independent suggested that even ANC Chair and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete may have cautioned Zuma against appointing Molefe as Finance Minister. If that is the case, this would change the game significantly, as Zuma could only count on the support of deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte among the top six. And of course, last week, it was only four Ministers who decided not to join in the standing ovation for Gordhan.

The fact that Zuma faces so much opposition on so many fronts, coupled with the delay in the announcement of the much-speculated reshuffle (such is the unpredictability here that it is entirely possible that by the time you read this, the reshuffle may have been announced) may suggest to his critics that he is actually growing quite weak. That the numbers of those who support him absolutely and without question are dwindling. While there is much heat in public, it is from people already known to be close to the Guptas (the Women’s League, Youth League etc), and not from people who are supporting Zuma for his own sake. This is the classic problem of a leader near the end of his term in office: the allies desert him, particularly as they try to cleanse themselves from failure and scandal.

While it would be politically naive to write Zuma off in any way, once people begin to think a political leader is toothless, the perception can take hold quite quickly. This is something he may want to guard against. Which also suggests he might decide to go on one last offensive in the near future. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma joined by Minister Faith Muthambi, via a GCIS link-up, engaged with listeners of different Community Radio stations across South Africa, (Photo: GCIS)


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