South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: A Whiplash kinda day and other Zuma-related injuries

By Stephen Grootes 7 February 2018

Sometimes, during political conferences, time seems to flash past, with events just dotting here and there. The only time this has been matched in recent political history is during the recall of Thabo Mbeki, when speech followed judgment, preceded meeting and led to decision. We are living through such a time, when political events don’t splutter and ebb, but shake and gust. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

NB: The South African presidential transition is a continuously unfolding story. See Daily Maverick homepage for the latest developments and analysis.

Brrrrt”. The cat. Always hungry. Spock, bearing the scar that marks a near-death experience at the hands of a dog over the Christmas holidays, was jumping higher than a mammal has a right to jump. It was breakfast time. Past it, in fact. There was the usual scolding as the dogs got fed first, and the “how dare you start the coffee before feeding me” look. With him wolfing down his food, it was time to check Twitter, WhatsApp having already been looked at in bed even before the glasses went on.

Okay, nothing huge here, but obviously the NEC meeting is still on for Wednesday. It’s going to be massive. My gut, so used to digesting Zuma’s continuing control of his organisation, can’t quite grasp that things are changing so profoundly.

It’s not the way the world works; Zuma doesn’t lose. That’s been the defining dynamic of the last 10 years.

Right, into kiddie-school preparation, with cricket bats and hair and breakfast and endless requests for early-morning TV. Finally, they were away, the head of the household was off to work, and I had a couple of hours on my own. Bliss. But on the phone the whole time, calling this person, chatting to that one, checking, asking, wondering if Zuma would really go if the NEC told him to. He is not Mbeki. But you know that by now.

Actually, it’s not really time for me to go to work, but really, it’s the only place to be at the moment, so into the car and on to Sandton. The newsroom was hopping. The ANC had just confirmed the appointment of Pule Mabe as its new spokesperson. It’s always nice to see a statement confirming what a friend and colleague has reported 12 hours earlier; Clement Manyathela had every right to be chuffed.

I’m old enough to have my own history with Mabe. He was Julius Malema’s treasurer in the ANC Youth League, about nine years ago. My memory of him then was that he was unpleasant. Like so many of the people involved in those press conferences, he seemed to believe that the media were there to be kicked around. And claims of corruption have hung around him forever, although, of course, he has never been convicted of everything. Immediately the producers I work with started working the phones to have him up for later in the day.

At the same time, it seemed Jessie Duarte had basically let the cat out of the bag at her little briefing, by explaining that they were planning for a big and important announcement in Cape Town after the NEC. In other words, she was confirming that indeed it was about Zuma’s future, and that it could be crucially important. First views had it that she was suggesting Zuma would go. Which is not what she said just 10 days ago, when she told City Press that Zuma would give the State of the Nation Address.

In the meantime, things were moving at Parliament. A grabbed conversation with a correspondent there confirmed it, the party’s chief whips were meeting with Baleka Mbete. First it was going to be at 15:00, then 14:00. And then suddenly, we were told she’d give a quick briefing at 15:00, after the meeting. But, showing once more how political events don’t subscribe to the usual laws of space and time, she was on the steps of Parliament 15 minutes early. Announcing that the address would actually be postponed. The Chair of the National Council of Provinces, Thandi Modise, put it best – “no purpose would be served” by holding it now.

Wow! This was the moment. This is unprecedented, like it’s never happened before that a SONA, or the opening of Parliament that preceded it, has been delayed. And think about that for a moment. This country has had civil uprisings, states of emergency, apartheid, it’s fought in two world wars, and never has this happened. It was the kind of moment that really revealed what may be about to happen.

I was taken back to a hot and sticky day in Pietermaritzburg in 2008. It was about an hour after the Nicolson Judgment, and Malema had already uttered the phrase “bye bye Mbeki, bye bye”. I was interviewing Duarte, in her position as ANC spokesperson, when she said that a decision on Mbeki’s future would be taken within the next eight days or so.

That was when you knew Mbeki was out. Mbete’s decision, later spun hard by the Presidency, feels like the same moment, when you know that everything is about to change.

By now I was in organising and discussion mode, the 702 afternoon drive team on the phones as I dashed into the studio. There was no point mucking about, as the microphone lights turned red I did a quick “good afternoon” and played the Mbete sound. The news. It’s always the best way to start a radio show. The reaction was huge, caller after caller celebrating, possibly prematurely.

Then into the reaction. The IFP’s Narend Singh thought it a good decision, the DA’s John Steenhuisen kept referring to him as “Mr Zuma”, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say “President Zuma”. The EFF’s Godrich Gardee promised a hassle-free SONA if it were delivered by Ramaphosa.

But the most fun was with Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s Chief Whip. He did the bog standard “why it’s a good thing, we welcome it” line, before I pressed him on Wednesday’s NEC meeting.

I think we know which way you’ll vote,” I said.

He was unimpressed by my cheekiness.

Can you allow the NEC meeting to go ahead without any people trying to pre-empt it, people like you?” was his response.

It may sound more aggressive than he meant it, but he more than made up for it with what came next. I asked if the ANC would survive all of this. He signalled very nicely how he feels when he said, “I’m very confident we’ll have a stronger ANC, an ANC that connects with the people.”

He went on for some time in that vein. It was obvious what he meant – Zuma will go. At the end I thanked him for giving us so many lines to read between. He laughed in response. I think we could presume that his message was pretty clear.

Then it was time to tackle Mabe, in his first interview on 702 as the new ANC spokesperson.

He accepted my congratulations, but knows enough about the world to know he’s signed up for one of the toughest jobs in politics. I asked him about his various scandals, if just to clear the air before he goes on to represent the ANC. He didn’t give a comprehensive account of what and how things happened, but he didn’t misstep either.

But it is still just strange. Zizi Kodwa was a straight-up, honest ANC spokesperson, always professional. Before him Jackson Mthembu was just too honest to lie. And before him was Duarte. You may not remember now, but on radio she was excellent back then, always quick and sometimes really quite funny. Mabe has a lot to live up to. And already he’s coming into this with some smallanyana skeletons. To deal with the political media in this country you need endless patience; there’s a reason Kodwa has made himself unavailable. You cannot do it forever. Mabe has not yet demonstrated that he has that special touch.

After the show ended, and as the red lights went off it was time for a quick post-mortem with the team, and home to a grabbed supper with the head of the household and the kids, before some time with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the final goodnights.

My phone was blinking. The SACP Media Circulation WhatsApp group had probably the strangest, most interesting, and possibly most powerful statement it has ever posted. The SACP was demanding that Zuma stop what it called “ethnic mobilisation”. The party claimed that Zuma was trying to mobilise Zulu regiments known as the “Amabutho” in a bid to stay in power. As discussed previously, it seems simply unlikely that he could achieve this. It wouldn’t work anyway, and it wouldn’t be in the long-term interests of their leaders to follow him.

But the second part of the SACP’s statement was even more interesting. It claimed to have heard reports that Zuma was preparing to fire Cyril Ramaphosa from the position of Deputy President, and to replace him with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. This would mean she would be acting president if something happened to him.

Dear reader, I don’t know if any of this is true. I would like to think that good communists are not alarmist, and wouldn’t say something publicly without have evidence to back it up. But surely, surely, at this stage in the game, any move by Zuma to do that, to remove Ramaphosa, would backfire on the ANC. It would speed up his removal.

As if to provide a perfect counterpoint to the communists, the ANC media WhatsApp group (at the time of writing, it is not known if Mabe is yet a member of this group) was explaining to broadcasters how they need to set up ahead of Wednesday’s announcement. The location of the NEC meeting this Wednesday, the place where this revolutionary movement was going to hold its big meeting? The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. It’s certainly a step up on where they last made such an announcement. At Esselen Park. A grimy, grotty little place, hardly suited to such a momentous announcement.

It was nearly 21:00, time for a brief foray into the medicinal cabinet. It had been a long day, a stiff dose was prescribed. It was time to relax, to talk over the events of the day, and speculate about what could happen on the morrow.

But the phone just wouldn’t stop. The WhatsApps flowed and gushed. Suddenly it became clear. The NEC meeting had been cancelled! What. CANCELLED! How. What on earth. WTF? Seriously?

Then the official confirmation, that it was following “fruitful” discussions between Ramaphosa and Zuma. Huh? Was he about to go? Like right now? Like, when you wake up on Wednesday will he still be there? And then Ace Magashule went on eNCA and said it was postponed at Zuma’s request. Oh, so was this a holding game, a play, a gamble, a feint… Sometimes, just being in power is a victory. It seems impossible to say right now.

But don’t forget this. No one in the history of this country has had as good an appreciation of the value of sheer power as Zuma. And he has used it to his advantage. You may wonder when he will go. In my experience, everything significant around Zuma happens at the time that is the most inconvenient to the greatest number of people. Seriously. It could be tonight. Tomorrow. The weekend. Next week. But he’s not the resigning type. DM

Photo: Daily Maverick’s depiction of Zuma looking for his second term as ANC president in 2012.

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