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13 December 2017 14:51 (South Africa)
South Africa

Reshuffle Chronicles: Playing with matches, Zuma may start a fire he cannot control

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan give a thumbs up to the Budget speech outside Tuynhuis. Minister of Finance Mr Pravin Gordhan delivers his 2017 Budget Speech in the National Assembly, Parliament. Cape Town 22/02/2017, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

On Monday it emerged that the chances of President Jacob Zuma sacking Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan were higher than they had been since he was forced to appoint him in December 2015. His decision to order Gordhan home from London was a real indication of more action to come. On Tuesday, the first signs of rebellion started to surface. And they are possibly merely a taste of the huge reaction should Zuma actually decide to cross this particular Rubicon. In December 2015 everyone was caught by surprise. And Zuma lost that round. This time, parts of the ANC, much of the alliance, and even bigger parts of our society as a whole are standing ready. If Zuma goes ahead and fires Gordhan, it may be only the ANC that could save itself. If it fails to act, if certain key people fail to react, their own careers could be beyond salvation. To be blunt, Zuma’s next move will beam us all up into a new political era. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

President Jacob Zuma’s action in ordering Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan home dominated political discussions around the country, and almost every news bulletin in the nation, throughout Monday. By Monday night, Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti had told Justice Malala on his show The Justice Factor that he didn’t understand the reason for the hasty order by Zuma for Gordhan to return home. On Tuesday afternoon, Public Service and Administration Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi told the Midday Report that the Rivonia Trialists “gave their all for bloody nothing personally, you understand. Whereas (those in power here), it’s who steals better than the other, that’s the story that we are experiencing now”.

When asked directly what he thought the consequences could be of the removal of Gordhan, Ramatlhodi said: 

“I would hope that those who make decisions, I would really hope, the President, when he makes his decisions, he considers the wider interests of the country.”

By then, Gordhan himself had landed, and rushed to Luthuli House, where he was seen on the sixth floor. For those who’ve spent time stuck in the lift system in that building, that can only mean he was there to meet the person who has his office there, Gwede Mantashe. After the meeting, Gordhan went straight to the High Court in Pretoria, where he told journalists he was still the Finance Minister. Meanwhile, Cosatu’s general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali had gone from Cosatu House in Braamfontein to Luthuli House, a short distance away. There he told reporters, on camera, that for a president to order a minister home in this way was unprecedented. He also said Cosatu had not been consulted on a reshuffle, and would expect to be, should one be coming. But the clincher was this quote – that Gordhan is a “brave man, man of steel, he has a nerve of steel”.

Added to it was criticism of Zuma, that he “embarrassed the country, the way he handled this recall has elements of embarrassment”.

This indeed looked as if Cosatu had jumped off the fence and onto the side of Gordhan. Considering that most of the federation’s unions also want to support Cyril Ramaphosa in December, this is no surprise. But Ntshalintshali’s presence at Luthuli House must have been deliberate. He would have known what was going to happen, and what he would be asked. And his answer suggests that a message was being delivered, one that Zuma could not have appreciated.

As an aside, one person who was at Luthuli House – but who, as is her wont, said nothing to anybody – was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Perhaps, just perhaps, she is the one person who could stop all of this madness right now. Surely, at this stage in the game, it would be difficult for Zuma to make big decisions that could affect the outcome of the ANC’s leadership battle without her. And if she said Gordhan must stay, well, then it’s likely that he would. And if she found a way to signal that Gordhan’s continued presence in the portfolio was the result of her work, it could well change the maths of the contest as a whole.

But all of this is just the beginning. Gordhan’s actions alone show that he is going to fight. By speaking to reporters outside OR Tambo when he landed, by going to the Gupta court case, by answering questions, however briefly, he was flying a flag, making sure that people saw him. He knows better than almost anyone how important proper PR is in this fight, that he needs to be seen and heard, and that the media presence will help to protect him.

And it appears that various plans are now in place should Zuma actually push the button and take the nation to Defcon 1.

It is unprecedented to have this kind of activity around Luthuli House because of a president’s single (and simple) act of giving an order to a minister. The last time we saw this kind of situation, apart from election campaigns, was probably during the Mbeki recall in 2008. This alone is an indication of real turmoil within the upper echelons in the party.

In reality, it would be extremely dangerous for Zuma to tip the balance now.

It is well-known by now that Mantashe would probably oppose the removal of Gordhan. And that Treasurer Zweli Mkhize would support him. But the key here is going to be Cyril Ramaphosa. The deputy president made sure to indicate to the nation that everyone knew he was giving his “political and personal support” to Gordhan last year. He would have to make good on that statement. And the best and most effective way to do it, to force the crisis that must surely be coming, is to resign.

And it seems that he would not be alone. Ramatlhodi is clearly in the mood to go as well, and Nkwinti could be hinting that he would go the same way. But there will be many others. Derek Hanekom was the person who proposed a discussion on whether Zuma should be recalled during that national executive committee meeting last year. Aaron Motsoaledi would probably join too. The SACP would ask Thulas Nxesi and Rob Davies to do the same. Just the fact that hints are being dropped now could indicate signalling to Zuma.

And then there is the ANC’s caucus in Parliament. Technically, it is possible for them, if they want to, to drop their own A-bomb, by bringing a motion of no-confidence in Zuma. Considering that ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu believes that the entire NEC should resign because “we have messed up”, this could be a possibility. But it would surely split the caucus down the middle. Cabinet ministers are MPs too, and there are many Zuma loyalists among them. For some of them, nothing could induce them to vote against Zuma.

This would bring parts of the ANC to ask opposition parties to help it unseat its own president. It would surely be a split that would badly hurt the ANC and possibly force new national elections. And if you were a strategist for the DA, would you recommend that they help the ANC, or would it be in your longer-term interest to abstain and watch your main opponent tear itself apart? This is surely too embarrassing a prospect for anyone in the ANC to consider.

The true value of an A-bomb, however, is lost once it has been used; much more potent is the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Still, even if the nuclear fallout is limited to just a mass Cabinet resignation and no action in Parliament, Zuma would have difficulty surviving the next NEC meeting. It came close to holding a vote on whether to recall him in November last year. An action like this, which is so obviously factional in nature and with such potentially lasting consequences for the party, could well push some people off the fence and into the arms of the opposing side.

But some of the major political action here would occur outside the ANC too. Already Business Unity South Africa has called for “cool heads and sound leadership”, while the Banking Association says the decision to order Gordhan back has “undone” the progress made in creating confidence in our economy. The Chamber of Mines has chimed in, saying it is “deeply concerned” about the developments this week. Considering how business organisations traditionally like to stay out of politics, this shows that they are gearing up for a very big fight.

Since 1994, business groups have been easily cowed by politicians. Not any more. They look like they are ready to go. And considering that they have money, resources, organisation, and the people who work for them (who are almost certain to agree with their actions), they are a constituency that is not to be messed with.

For business itself, this could be a cathartic experience. After 1994, business did not have political legitimacy, because of contested perceptions of its role during apartheid. Business leaders were often white, and in debates like affirmative action, the ANC always had the moral upper hand. But now, many business leaders themselves are black, many of them with struggle credentials. They would be fighting against Zuma, who has the moral upper hand over almost no one. This could be the ticket for business into a much bigger public role.

But the real energy will come from other sources too. Civil society groups, from the coalition led by Save South Africa through to a large number of NGOs in the health, education and civil rights sectors, will join any action against Zuma. There will be protests outside Parliament, protests outside Luthuli House, protests outside provincial ANC headquarters, protests outside regional offices, protests outside government buildings. We are a nation founded on protest, it is in our DNA, and the country is about to rediscover it.

A fighter himself, Zuma may be tempted to arrange his loyalists to hold their own demonstrations of support. Groups could clash, making many public events difficult and downright incendiary.

Zuma could truly face the worst of many worlds, should he pull the trigger this week. There would be a mixture of full-frontal attacks in the ANC’s NEC and Parliament, and guerrilla attacks by civil society groups and NGOs. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which Zuma is almost unable to go to Parliament because of the reaction of some of his own MPs, while NEC meetings are postponed indefinitely. At the same time, he is almost unable to appear in public because of the organised reaction of millions. If four women are able to almost disrupt the announcement of election results simply be holding up pieces of paper with the words “Remember Khwezi”, imagine what a much bigger, more organised group could do.

And no matter what kind of reaction there is to any move that Zuma makes now, one thing is almost absolutely certain. Our politics is going to be more unstable, more difficult to predict and, for those involved, more dangerous. Especially for him. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan give a thumbs up to the Budget speech outside Tuynhuis. Minister of Finance Mr Pravin Gordhan delivers his 2017 Budget Speech in the National Assembly, Parliament. Cape Town 22/02/2017, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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