ANC Leadership Race: A diminishing spectrum of Zuma’s nuclear options
- Stephen Grootes
- South Africa
- 13 Nov 2017 12:25 (South Africa)
With the ANC leadership battle now entering its final stretch, it is becoming apparent that it is going to be a nail-biter. For the moment, it is still impossible to predict a winner. While there is a public perception, in many urban areas at least, that Cyril Ramaphosa is currently in the lead, those who watch our politics carefully are getting increasingly concerned about President Jacob Zuma’s next move. As we seem to be getting closer to finding out what that move could be, there is still plenty of reason to fear that it could all end up greatly affecting the outcome of the conference, and South Africa, not to mention whether it is held at all. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
There is a grimly compelling logic to the fear that President Jacob Zuma is going to release some sort of nuclear bomb before the December conference. It has become obvious that Zuma can’t afford to lose. He is a politician who has shown in the past that he would not shy away from pulling illegal moves. With Cyril Ramaphosa’s strong showing, he will have to ensure that Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma wins, by any means possible. It is this logic that leads to speculations about how the ANC’s conference can be controlled or manipulated, and about how Jacob Zuma may try to use the power of the state, i.e. the security cluster, and especially the State Security Agency (SSA), to accomplish that mission. The relentless logic of this line of analysis also suggests that the closer we get to a possible Ramaphosa victory, the more extreme that probable action would have to be.
It is this fear that underpins the reporting around what appears to be Zuma’s new plan for higher education. Both the Sunday Times and City Press believe that Zuma is going to introduce free higher education in a way that will see less money being available for other government departments. This would almost certainly lead to what is now an almost inevitable downgrade. The purported plan has troubling echoes of how money was managed in Zimbabwe which led to the hyper-inflation that country suffered through, wiping out the economy in the process. While this plan is unlikely to be close to the same scale of disaster that happened in Zimbabwe, and we are a much bigger country, the mere fact that comparisons are made is disturbing.
What is strange about this plan is that it would benefit the few at the expense of the many. The first reports on this suggest that social grants would be cut and the RDP housing programme would be cut back to pay for students to have fee-free higher education. This obviously makes no sense. Cutting social grants in this country is political suicide; it is the backbone of survival for the biggest proportion of South Africa’s population: it ensures that tens of millions have enough food, it has made us a less unequal country (while still obviously not being enough) and has ensured that our children are taller and healthier than ever.
No case can be made to cut this back. So then, what would be the logic?
Perhaps Zuma just wants to ensure the country burns, fully knowing that the #FeesMustFall crowd are prepared to engage in violence. Perhaps it’s an attempt to turn the young on the old, to ensure that he has some sort of standing army of young people prepared to support him no matter what. The sort of opposite of Mugabe’s use of the “war vets” that helped him maintain his grip on power.
But even those options seems fanciful. The youth may be angry, but they’re not stupid. Even people who would benefit from these plans would know they’re being used, and that there is a very nuanced picture to what they’re being offered. The leadership of these movements have also shown themselves to be riven with divisions, with different agendas in play at the same time.
Of course, the picture of the world and our politics that we have may be very different to the picture that Zuma has. He may indeed genuinely feel that this option would still work. But he is a president who has lost all respect of the citizens. Buying love may work, but can't be a long-term strategy.
Having said all of this, the free education would not necessarily change the dial on the ANC conference outcome. Just as Jaques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers may not have much impact on the ANC delegates, and just as any future scandal around Ramaphosa may not equally have an impact, such a bold move by Zuma could eventually prove fruitless. And that’s because this entire contest is not about the hearts and minds of delegates, but controlling branches and the people they send.
However, it is still worth examining what other nuclear options Zuma might have left at this moment. Presumably, they would involve the State Security Agency. And that's where Pauw’s book may well have an impact. Because, instead of focusing on the outcome of the conference, SSA director general Arthur Fraser presumably has his hands full just dealing with the claims against him personally – and those are serious, credible claims, some of which were made in Daily Maverick. (For more, see here and here)
In other words, the SSA and the people who would engage in Zuma’s moves are these days under pressure in a way that they would not have been before. And of course any action that looks like it comes from an intelligence agency is immediately going to be blamed on them, and on Zuma. Even if it is a simple power failure, if it indeed was all innocent. Equally, the impotence of the SSA’s response to Pauw also suggests weakness. Threatening legal action and not following up, and then attempting to lay charges that simply can’t stand in court, looks like sheer incompetence and impotence. Unless they take some sort of intense action now, they look ineffective. And if they did try something extrajudicial in relation to Pauw, there would be hell to pay. His public profile is so high at the moment that everyone, really everyone, would know who was responsible.
It is also important to pose a question, the answer to which could actually determine the outcome of this entire race. In 2007 Thabo Mbeki had formal control of the intelligence services. But as we now know, Zuma actually had his own people there, and a form of control of his own. So, could Ramaphosa have the same right now? It is unlikely that he has the same level of support that Zuma appeared to have in 2007. But even just one person in the upper echelons who was feeding him information could be enough to make a difference. And it doesn’t have to be someone who is against Zuma, or driven by some moral purpose. Just the sheer self-interest of a person who believes that Ramaphosa could be the next president would be enough. Thus Ramaphosa would have an inside track on what to expect, and when to expect it.
However, that doesn’t necessarily help him prevent Zuma from deploying any kind of nuclear plan (although, it is entirely possible that the higher education plan has been leaked by Ramaphosa’s people with the express intention of making sure it cannot be implemented). And so we are back to the question about what that bomb could be, and yet not much closer to an answer.
However, it is important to realise that Zuma’s options are, in reality, quite limited. The SSA is under its own pressure, his own support in the structures of the ANC has been slowly decreasing, and there is evidence that he is fighting a battle on two fronts. In other words, it is one thing for Zuma to fight for his life, with the only aim to be to stay in power. It is another situation entirely if he also has to keep the Russians happy at the same time. Pressure from one front could well lead to mistakes on the other.
And this is where desperation becomes a factor. The more desperate a person is, the more extreme their possible actions. And yet, at the same time, the more likely that person is to make a mistake that could backfire.
It would make sense, at this stage, for Zuma to actually attempt his nuclear option in the ANC itself. There, he is more likely to have control of events while anything that affects the country directly and immediately would lead to a more unpredictable situation. It appears that is his only real nuclear option to stop the conference from happening. That, of course, would have implications of its own. As Professor Anthony Butler has previously explained, if the ANC is unable to have its leadership election now, it almost certainly will never have it. And that is the end of the ANC as we currently know it. Still, it would strengthen Zuma in the short term.
People who fear Zuma-created chaos over the next few weeks are entirely rational. However, it is important also to take into account how limited his options actually are. Everything he does appears to end up out in the open; we live in a democracy with what appears to be a still-robust Electoral Commission, the media is keeping a close eye, and his opponents are well-resourced and well-organised. You’ll be lucky to have any nails left by December the 20th. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma at the ANC policy conference earlier in 2017, with his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee