South Africa

Removing Zuma: Mbete manoeuvres into the power play

By Ranjeni Munusamy 3 April 2017

After a high-octane news week in which President Jacob Zuma fully embraced the role of the enemy of the South African people, the focus shifts to the ANC headquarters on Monday for the next chess moves. Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete announced on Sunday that she would engage in a consultation process on the requests for a motion of no confidence in the president. Mbete’s hasty return to South Africa has, however, more to do with the warfare inside the ANC than attending to the requests. While she would have to allow the parliamentary debate at some point, she appears to be involved in the mop-up operation after the dam walls burst in the ANC. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

South Africa’s week of hell began with the SMS sent to former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, which he received when he landed at Heathrow Airport in London early on Monday morning. The SMS communicated an instruction from the Presidency that Gordhan and National Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile should abandon their investor roadshow and return to South Africa immediately. Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas’s leg of the roadshow was also cancelled.

That was the signal that trouble was coming.

Turbulence rocked the market and the rand plunged. Zuma did not care and was reeling out his plan to fire Gordhan and Jonas. The intention initially was just to axe them; three days later, they become part of the mass midnight slaughter in Cabinet.

So what led to Zuma opting for the group cull rather than acting on his fixation with Gordhan and Jonas? It had much to do with the fallout amongst the ANC’s top six officials, which was behind the scenes on Monday, but then erupted in public by the weekend.

It is now common knowledge that Zuma revealed at two meetings at the ANC headquarters, Albert Luthuli House, on Monday that he intended to fire Gordhan and Jonas and appoint Brian Molefe as finance minister. Zuma conveyed that there was a breakdown of trust between him and Gordhan and that their relationship had become untenable. At the first meeting, a bilateral with the South African Communist Party (SACP), Zuma was roundly challenged on his intentions.

At the second meeting of the ANC’s top six officials, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general Gwede Mantashe and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize opposed the firing of the minister and deputy minister on the basis of a bogus intelligence report Zuma told them about. They also would not accept the appointment of Brian Molefe into the finance portfolio and advised the president that he could not axe Gordhan and Jonas and retain a cohort of under-performers in the Cabinet.

Zuma undertook to think over the matter and come back to the officials with a decision. The understanding was that that would take place this Monday.

But a series of things then unfolded.

Some details of the SACP meeting and the officials’ meeting were leaked. The Gupta-owned television station, ANN7, appeared to be the major beneficiary of the leaked information. On Thursday, the SACP held a media briefing to publicly confirm what they were told by the president about his intention to fire Gordhan and Jonas. SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said they were doing so because information was leaked from the meeting to create the impression that they had consented to the purge in the finance ministry. Reports that the ANC officials had agreed to Gordhan and Jonas being fired also turned out to be false.

City Press reported that Zuma was “deeply hurt” that everything he had told the officials on Monday had found its way into the media. The report quoted “a close Zuma confidante” as saying that the president felt betrayed that they had leaked the information.

This makes sense in the way Zuma flipped his position from Monday to Thursday. When Zuma suddenly summoned the officials to his Pretoria home, he was no longer in a consulting mood. Mantashe, Ramaphosa and Mkhize have suggested that they were presented with a list of ministers and deputy ministers who were to be axed, appointed and shuffled around. And they have all made it clear, publicly, that despite their opposition, Zuma was determined to fire Gordhan and Jonas on the basis of a dubious intelligence report.

On Thursday night, it was again ANN7 that reeled out details of the Cabinet reshuffle as soon as the officials meeting as over. While the ministers and deputy ministers who were axed were not given the courtesy of being informed of the president’s decision, news dribbled out on ANN7 about who had been fired and who was to be appointed.

What does not make sense, however, is why Zuma assumed it was the dissenters who leaked the information. Only one member of the ANC top six, the deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, makes a regular appearance on the channel, even doing so on Friday when she welcomed the appointment of the new ministers. But as with the bogus intelligence report, Zuma would rather act on conspiracy theories and unverified information than confront those he suspects of betraying him. As president he should be engaging them openly rather than wading in conspiracies. 

So Zuma took the unprecedented step of exercising his constitutional prerogative to reshuffle the Cabinet unilaterally, without the consent of his fellow officials, to convey the message that he no longer cared what they thought.

The events between Monday and Thursday probably also fuelled his anger. Struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada died on Tuesday morning and his funeral on Wednesday turned out to be a turning point for people who were fed up with Zuma’s network of corruption and incompetence. It must have stung and humiliated Zuma to be told first that he could not speak at the funeral and then to hear that he had been eviscerated there. It must have been particularly infuriating to discover that Gordhan, whom he believed was conspiring against him, received special recognition at the funeral.

So in the dead of night on Thursday, Zuma exacted his revenge, and did not bother to inform any of the axed ministers and deputy ministers of his decision.

Earlier in the day, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema both sent requests to Speaker Baleka Mbete requesting that a motion of no confidence in the president be scheduled. Malema had asked that the National Assembly be called back from recess and that a special sitting be convened this week. After the reshuffle Maimane also asked that a sitting be convened earlier.

At a media briefing at OR Tambo International Airport on Sunday, Mbete said she decided to cut short her working trip to Bangladesh “to ensure that these requests are given the appropriate consideration”. She said she would consult on the issue with the ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu and Ramaphosa, in his capacity as leader of government business.

“I must stress that I am alive to the extreme challenges and sense of anxiety our young democracy is going through at this moment. Our people are looking to Parliament to play its part and exercise its constitutional responsibilities,” Mbete said. “I therefore assure South Africans that this legislative arm of the State must and will rise to the occasion.”

She contested that she used her position as Speaker to protect Zuma and insisted she did not take Parliament’s responsibilities lightly. She said she would be back in her office on Tuesday and needed a few days to consult on whether to convene a sitting and when this should be.

But during the question session it emerged that the consultation process would actually be beginning at Luthuli House on Monday with meetings of the ANC officials and the national working committee (NWC). Mbete true reason for returning to South Africa early was revealed in her veiled reproach of Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize for speaking publicly about their opposition to Zuma’s reshuffle. She said ANC supporters expected them to deal with their differences behind closed doors and “always express disquiet about us differing in public”.

“We have a way we do things. We have a culture. We have meetings. We are brutally frank in those meetings. There are things we don’t do but we will discuss those things in the meeting‚” Mbete said.

This in all likelihood means that there will be major battles in the officials’ meeting and in the NWC, with Zuma’s allies, including Mbete, slamming Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize for speaking publicly on the reshuffle.

Mbete said she had been at Monday’s meetings with the SACP and the top six when Zuma presented “a package of issues” and “historic background” on why he wanted to remove Gordhan and Jonas. She intimated that the reasons for their firing were not limited to the “intelligence report”, and said Zuma had briefed them “broadly”. She is obviously trying to counter the versions of  the other three officials.

“We appreciated the fact that he took us into confidence as a head of state,” Mbete said of Zuma. “We did not discuss the intelligence report. There was no question of agreeing or not agreeing on it. We did not see it.”

Under heavy questioning, Mbete said while in Bangladesh she received a call from Zuma when he was leaving Cape Town on Thursday afternoon to meet with the other four officials later that night. She said he informed her “about what was going to be announced but not the detail”. She claimed she had not spoken to anyone apart from parliamentary officials on her return to South Africa on Sunday and that she had still to find out what had happened regarding the reshuffle.

But one thing Mbete cannot be oblivious too, even though she was abroad, is the wave of negative sentiment against Zuma, including in the ANC and particularly from the SACP. Kathrada’s funeral and memorial service on Saturday has churned up more anger and determination to remove Zuma from office. There have been widespread calls for ANC Members of Parliament to vote along with the opposition to remove Zuma from office. A 50% plus one majority of members of the House is required for Zuma to be voted out.

This is why Mbete rushed back. While Zuma might be toxic, she clearly believes his faction can aid her presidential ambitions. 

As in the past, Zuma and his allies want to shut down the dissent in the ANC and bully those rebelling against him to close ranks for the sake of party unity.

Mbete’s voice would be needed in the meeting of the six officials so that she, Zuma and Duarte can hold out against Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize. This will kick the debate to the NWC, which leans in favour of Zuma. They will argue that the contention between the officials should be dealt with internally and that ANC members should not collude with the opposition against an ANC president.

It is unlikely that the three officials would be able to counter that argument. It might also be difficult to call a special meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) to discuss the matter if there is disagreement amongst the officials on doing so. The ANC constitution is silent on how special NEC meetings can be called if there is disagreement amongst the officials or the NWC. 

The result is that even though Mbete would have to schedule the parliamentary debate, the ANC will probably prevent its members from voting in favour of the motion. While leaders of the opposition parties are engaged in behind-the-scenes lobbying and negotiations with ANC MPs, the vote will be all the more difficult if the members have to defy an express instruction from the ANC. Some ANC MPs might still vote according to conscience against Zuma but it might be dicey to secure the requisite numbers.

This is now high-stakes politics. With deep divisions at every level of the ANC, the situation is unstable and difficult to predict. Zuma has played his cards by executing the reshuffle. Now he must fight to survive, and that fight can take various forms in the ANC and using the institutions of the state. His opponents across the political spectrum and in civil society need to think hard and smart about strategies to continue to isolate him from his backers and weaken his base.

What ultimately counts is whether they can cut short Zuma’s presidency and rescue the state from further capture and looting. That will not be an easy battle to win. But South Africa’s week of hell was also not a walk in the park for Zuma. He is also battered and bruised.

The final deathblow might not happen quickly but it needs to be decisive. Therefore the execution needs to be meticulous. DM

Photo:  South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (2nd R) celebrates his re-election as party President alongside newly-elected party Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (2nd L) and re-elected Chairperson Baleka Mbete (R) at the National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings



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