After four days of late-night announcements, angry press conferences, furious statements, and leaked speeches, it was time for the first major ANC structure to meet to discuss President Jacob Zuma, and the reaction to his factional reshuffle and removal of Pravin Gordhan from the Finance Ministry. In the end, the National Working Committee, surprising no one, simply resolved to “discuss” with Cosatu and the SACP their calls for Zuma to leave. At first glance it looks almost as if nothing has changed, that Zuma is still the MacDaddy of our politics, and the game goes on the same way as it has for many years. But look a little deeper, and it’s possible that the rules of the game have actually changed quite dramatically. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The ANC is nothing if not predictable. Zuma does something. There is righteous fury and furious anger. Society gets moving, people mutter darkly about Parliament passing a vote of no confidence. After a climax of press conferences, eventually a top ANC structure meets and glosses over it all.
Zuma stays on to giggle another day.
On the face of it, that is exactly what has happened here. There had been huge momentum building up, from Friday night’s dramatic statement by the SACP that Zuma must be removed from office, through to Cosatu’s press conference on Monday that basically agreed with the communists. This was all new in our politics. It smelt, to some at least, as if change was in the air, that this momentum was irresistible, until it came into close personal combat with the immovable rock that is Zuma’s built-in majority on the NWC.
The NWC’s statement seems particularly limp-wristed. For many people the only issue that mattered was whether it would suggest an early National Executive Committee meeting to discuss removing Zuma from office. And all it said on that was that “the officials and the members of the NEC must continue to engage with Cosatu, SACP and organs of civil society on this matter”.
Still, to use the removal of Zuma as the only yardstick is misleading. Considering that the ANC has never in its history removed a sitting leader from the presidency (Mbeki was obviously a former leader of the ANC by the time he was removed), it is difficult to consider that not achieving something that has never happened before is a failure.
In all of what is happening around us it can be important to remember this; Gwede Mantashe, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC Treasurer Zweli Mkhize would have known on Friday, when they started to criticise the process followed in the reshuffle, that Zuma would always be safe in the NWC. They would have known the maths of the ANC structures better than almost anyone (the only other possible “one” is, of course, Zuma himself). But despite knowing all of that, they went ahead and made their criticism public anyway. Which means they knew a defeat was coming in this structure.
So then, if that is the case, why did they go public in the first place?
One could argue that it was out of sheer principle. But they didn’t do this during Nkandla, or the State of Capture report, so we can probably agree that the HMS Principle sailed a long time ago. It could be possible, perhaps, that they feel the NWC was never going to be the right structure for this, and actually they have to wait for another structure to have the real fight. Which means that it is the NEC that is really going to matter. Certainly the maths is harder to determine there, and it seems to be less completely overwhelmingly in favour of Zuma than it was, say, two years ago.
There is another possibility: that Mantashe, Ramaphosa and Mkhize are actually fighting, not to remove Zuma, but the leadership contest. Surely that is the most important thing, in the longer term, for them, the ANC, and every South African. Perhaps, like a boxer who has to face an opponent over a full 15 rounds, it helps now to reveal their weaknesses, their true character if you like, while doing as much damage as you can in the earlier rounds, even though you’ll take some punishment in the first place.
If that is the strategy, they may have actually have been more successful than at first it seemed.
Even in the actual statement of the NWC, the words agreed to by the people in the room, there is a repudiation of what Zuma has said, an actual refusal to buy his version of events. Much has been made of the claim by Zuma to have an “intelligence report” suggesting that Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas were enlisting the aid of international bankers in their tussle with Zuma. Mantashe, representing the NWC, states that they agree the relationship between Zuma and Gordhan had broken down irretrievably. But the NWC then goes on to say:
“The issue of the intelligence report complicated the matter, creating a lot of unhappiness. This was consequently presented as the only reason for his removal which was unfortunate and incorrect.”
In normal times, the NWC of the ANC, with the backers of Zuma that it has, calling his version of events “unfortunate and incorrect” would be a massive shift. This is surely a public rebuke for Zuma. And this in itself must be unprecedented. In comparison, during Nkandla, the NWC didn’t go this far in its treatment of Zuma.
There is more evidence of a shift in the NWC in its explicit quotation of an ANC conference resolution around reshuffles, which states:
“The prerogative of the President, premiers and mayors to appoint and release members of the Cabinet, executive councils and mayoral committees should be exercised after consultation with the leadership of the organisation.”
In other words, this is the NWC saying, explicitly, that in this case the consultation process was not followed. Again, an unprecedented repudiation of Zuma’s version of events, in public.
And considering that it has been Mantashe, Ramaphosa and Mkhize who have been saying exactly this in public, it certainly looks like the NWC is implicitly backing their version of events.
There is also something significant in what has not been said. The NWC essentially accepted that the top six as a structure had not dealt with the reshuffle in the correct way. It did not lambaste, criticise or discipline the three members who had spoken out by name. This is important. If they were on weak ground, they would have been named and shamed; they were not. And they have not been forced to apologise either. Which means, surely, that some of what they said still stands, that it has not been undone by the force of magical politics, or mysteriously forgotten. What they did is still with us.
That alone is significant.
Of course, the NWC has taken the trouble to congratulate the new appointees, and thus, some would say, give its blessing to Zuma’s factional reshuffle. That must surely be true. But it would also be hard for the NWC not to congratulate them, it has to say something. And they are, technically at least, ANC deployees, which means they can’t go into office without the ANC’s blessing. In public at least.
We have a moment now to draw breath for the first time since last Monday morning, and to do that is to realise that the game that is afoot in our politics has changed quite significantly.
For a start, both Cosatu and the SACP have now publicly said it – they want Zuma to go. Some things cannot be put back into the donkey. They cannot unsay it now. And if they were, both organisations would split quite dramatically. This really changes the game, because both groups will be pushed by their constituencies to keep the pressure up on Zuma and the ANC. It is possible to argue that the real fight is in the ANC, and Cosatu and the SACP don’t matter that much. To an extent that’s true, but both of them have members who belong to the ANC. And they are both important as they serve as proxies; they represent different parts of the ANC through their inter-meshed political relationships. They serve as the public voice of the disaffected faction within the ANC that for various reasons can’t be quite as vociferous in public.
There is also the possibility that what is happening now around the SACP could only find its full expression in its congress later this year. Already there have been strong hints that the party’s members will vote to leave the alliance as a formal structure. If it continues to be ignored in this way, that can only further drive that dynamic, with consequences that will be far-reaching for our politics.
However, the most important change to the politics within the ANC is probably the fact that everything is now out in the open. That recording of Ramaphosa saying that a “moment of great renewal us upon us” and referring to “getting rid of greedy people, corrupt people within our ranks” cannot be removed or deleted. We, and everyone in the ANC, can now decide for ourselves what the fight is really about, and where the battle lines are. As Mantashe himself suggested in the press conference on Monday, it was an easy meeting, because everyone could be candid, that they could say what they wanted to say. This is a significant shift, because it means the entire leadership fight is now out in the open, unlike in the past. And it means we are likely to see those who support Ramaphosa speaking out in the open more often, with more freedom than they have in the past. They will know it will be harder for anyone in the ANC to take action against him. And of course, after everything that’s happened, they will have more ammunition.
While for many people, getting rid of Zuma now is the only game in town, in the longer run the leadership battle is probably going to matter more. Especially if you believe that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will govern the way Zuma has throughout his disastrous years. In this contest, it could be that Mantashe, Ramaphosa and Mkhize have actually shifted the ground, significantly changing the ANC’s game. DM
Photo: ANC Secretery General, Gwede Mantashe addresses the media at a media briefing following recent calls for President Zuma to step down, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 05 April 2017. President Zuma is facing increasing pressure from opposition parties, ANC members and the public to step down after President Zuma fired members of the cabinet including Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, sending the local currency, the Rand, to new lows against US Dollar. EPA/STR
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine