South Africa

Analysis: How powerful is Zuma right now?

By Stephen Grootes 5 June 2017

There are many questions swirling in the maelstrom that is South African politics at the moment, that ultimately all lead to 2019, and what will our politics looks like after that. Perhaps the key to almost all of them is the simple query; How powerful is President Jacob Zuma, politically, right now? It is a complex question to answer, because it gets right to the heart of the issues that are shaking our country right now. There are many schools of thought, and certainly no simple response. But it is still an important one to consider. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On the night of Sunday May 28 the generally middle-class Twitterati went into a small depression. The first reports emerged that President Jacob Zuma had survived yet another national executive committee where a motion of no confidence was raised against him. While most people were expecting this, the NEC was the one place within the ANC that severe action could have been taken against him as a punishment for his reshuffle, and his failure to lead through consultation. And of course, there was an initial publication of the Gupta e-mails that weekend, which suggested that even with pretty solid proof of how the First Family has been governing in his name, he could still survive.

At face value, this makes him rather powerful, almost untouchable. On this version, he has the ability to push through a reshuffle despite the wishes of his top six, and of the National Working Committee, and survive. And yet, at the same time, that same NEC meeting made other decisions that appear to go against him. If we accept, as the #GuptaLeaks suggest we must, that it would be in the interests of the Gupta family to have Brian Molefe back at Eskom, then why did the NEC decide that his re-reinstatement to Eskom must be re-rescinded? The last few months have actually seen another example of what you could call a proxy fight involving Zuma in the NEC. In May this year Zuma went to Port Elizabeth to specially congratulate Andile Lungisa for breaking ANC rules and running for the position of Nelson Mandela Bay region chair. The NEC eventually reversed that election, and told Lungisa he should not have run in the first place. Just these two examples would suggest that Zuma is not necessarily all-powerful within the NEC.

But if Zuma loses some of the “proxy” fights, but wins the main battle, what does this tell us? It could be that he’s happy to throw individuals under the bus: so, if Molefe gets kicked out of Megawatt Park, then the Guptas will find another way of milking Eskom through its chairman Ben Ngubane – as long as he can ensure there’s a never-ending stream of willing executioners/henchmen. Or maybe it is about planting certain fights so that you can lose in order to fool the opponents and go on to win the war.

It is also possible that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa doesn’t want to risk damaging the ANC now, so he’s not going to move against Zuma at this point. Or perhaps, that “vocal majority” in the NEC who all appeared to speak but didn’t indicate which side they’re on last weekend, have made the calculation, possibly correctly, that while they do want Zuma to go, they’d rather hold until December to stop the party from splitting. And that this motion was simply brought to keep him off balance and on the defensive.

All of these seem plausible scenarios.

Many of the most informed watchers of our politics, those in our commentariat who have been paid to watch Zuma for the last decade or more, generally agree on one point. To overly simplify, even dramatise, Zuma is a Machiavellian tactical genius who is usually two steps ahead of everybody else. On this version then, everything that has happened recently that appears to work against Zuma is simply a temporary setback. Even the current apparent silence of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (who seems to have almost suspended her non-campaign) is part of a much bigger plan that will see him somehow consolidating his control of the ANC, and thus the country, in December.

There is plenty of evidence to bolster this case. Zuma has been written off many times and won, he has had plenty of time in power to consolidate his control of government and the ANC (if not to implement radical economic change…) and it would be foolish to think that much has changed. After all, it is still, as always, about the ANC provinces and the Free State, Mpumalanga, the North West and of course KwaZulu-Natal (where his ally Sihle Zikalala is leader). And as long as he has that, then Dlamini-Zuma’s election is in the bag.

On this version then, for those who oppose Zuma, the only ray of light is to hope that while Zuma has managed to control the ANC, he has once again badly misjudged the country (as he did in the local polls last year).

But there is also evidence to suggest that he is not that powerful any more.

It is clear now that Zuma can make mistakes, and sometimes big ones. The sacking of Nhlanhla Nene and appointment of Des van Rooyen in 2015 was clearly one of these. And that mistake had the consequence of preparing society (and major parts of the ANC) to oppose him if he were to try and take over the Finance Ministry again. The reaction we see from society now would not have happened if he had not made that earlier misstep. And that would suggest he only acted because he was in a corner, where his opponents were closing in, while his faction (or just those bought and paid for by the Guptas) were demanding he act.

That could mean then that both the Lungisa and Molefe decisions were also mistakes, and that in fact Zuma is prone to this sort of thing from time to time, that he can overreach, and misjudge things. Which could also indicate that his recent reshuffle was one of those times.

There are other events that are also difficult to understand given our current political situation. Police Minister Fikile Mbalula has moved against the former head of the hawks, Mthandazo Berning (“liar and man without integrity”) Ntlemeza. Last week Mbalula announced Zuma’s decision to remove Kgomotso Phahlane as Acting National Police Commissioner. We have been given three separate and conflicting reasons for this decision. Zuma’s statement simply said Phahlane’s term was up, Mbalula said it was because of Phahlane’s fight with IPID and Robert McBride, and Phahlane said it was his decision. They can’t all be true. And in fact it’s probable that none of them is.

But the choice of replacement is even more perplexing. Lesetja Mothiba has been described by everyone who knows him as a good cop, an honest person who will do a good job.

Why in the world, considering the inherent danger that position may pose to his safety, would Zuma appoint an honest police officer?

It cannot be that Mbalula forced him to, he simply doesn’t have the political power (Mbalula was with Julius Malema in the anti-Zuma faction, he turned tail at Mangaung, people who do that are generally completely beholden to the person who allows them to come back, and end up in office, but with no power… ask Martinus van Schalkwyk). It feels unlikely that somehow members of the NEC have forced his hand. Or, that this is just a temporary tactic, to allow Zuma to pick someone else when the other National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega’s term expires in just a week or so’s time. But even if that is the case, there is no telling what an honest police commissioner could do to Zuma with just 10 days to spare. All he would have to do is appoint an honest investigating officer to probe the #GuptaLeaks, someone who could not be bought, and that would become a difficult process to stop.

Sometimes, our politics is simply impossible to understand properly.

Then again, to add to the interpretation that Zuma is in fact weak is the fact that nowhere do you ever hear of his supporters in the NEC talking about disciplining those who speak out against him. There’s no talk of acting against Jackson Mthembu or Makhosi Khoza or even Derek Hanekom (who has the added position of being himself chair of the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee). And despite the popular perception that Gwede has Mantashed (or he has not, according to some) Zuma has appeared powerless to move against Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize and Cyril Ramaphosa (who all spoke about against the reshuffle and Zuma’s unacceptable behaviour). Surely, if Zuma were completely in charge, they would all be facing action of some sort by now. And if he could, he would surely remove Ramaphosa – it takes only a flick of the president’s finger to fire his deputy.

Perhaps he is not in fact in charge of very much at all.

One of the people Zuma is often compared to is Russian President/dictator Vladimir Putin, the man from whom he appeared to accept medical treatment following what looks like a plot by one of his wives to poison him. There is the claim that Zuma is somehow in the same league. But through all of what Putin has done, his own personal popularity has never been questioned. By hook and by crook (and closing down independent media and civil society voices, and killing his critics) Putin’s own numbers are still high. The same cannot be said of Zuma. And in a democracy, that really does matter. If you don’t have personal popularity it is much easier for people to move against you. Those who criticise Zuma from within the ANC are currently hailed as heroes, which is a strong incentive for others to come forward.

One of the reasons that it is so difficult to determine how powerful Zuma is at the moment is that we simply do not have all facts, and probably no one has. Despite what people in the NEC say, we simply don’t know how they would actually act if there was a chance to remove Zuma. It’s a bit like the polls of politicians and their parties before an election. They can be exciting and tell us something about what could happen. But the only survey that matters is that on election day itself. Here, the only election that matters is what happens in the ANC in December. And it’s only then that we will really know, for sure, how powerful Zuma actually is. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma.