South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: The waiting game, ebbing power, and a mysterious visit to Tuynhuys

By Stephen Grootes 8 February 2018

It is a common complaint that Cyril Ramaphosa is letting this all take too long, that he is being held hostage by Zuma, that he’s being played. But time matters in political processes, because it affects perceptions. And by dragging things out like this, power is ebbing away from Zuma. Every day. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Have you ever had that strange feeling, the moment the alarm goes off in the morning, where before you even slam the button off you’re reaching for the phone to see how the universe might have changed overnight. Strangely, considering the time we’re in, virtually nothing had moved overnight. Jacob Zuma was still president, Cyril Ramaphosa hadn’t been fired as deputy president, Vladimir Putin really was staying in Russia. Phew, okay. Time to get up and make coffee. And tea. And feed the first and second born, while trying to avoid dogs and the Vulcan.

Right, with caffeine brewing there was 30 seconds to check the iPad, Daily Maverick had analysis of last night’s events, EWN had the latest, Business Day was convinced a deal was close. After the usual domestic chores, involving lunch, packing kiddie bags and many, many hugs, it was time to prepare for the day.

In the office, things were jumping, that air you get only in a newsroom on the cusp of something absolutely fundamentally important happening. But there was also some frustration, a wish for something to happen to justify all the activity and nervous excitement. I read once that soldiers were taught to “sleep when you can, eat when you can and sh*t when you can”. The journalistic equivalent is to charge your equipment when you can, drink coffee when you can, and gossip when you have to.

Finally, just after two o’clock there was news. Real news. A statement from the ANC. From, in fact, the president of the ANC, Ramaphosa himself. It was a simple holding statement, not saying much, but essentially explaining how he and the president (of the country) were having constructive discussions, and how he understood the anxiety of many people and the nation, etc. It was one of those statements that someone puts out when there isn’t really anything to say, but it’s important to say that some process or other is continuing.

On Twitter there was a wide chorus of “why bother” in putting out the statement at all. I thought the same for a few moments. Until a wiser and more experienced colleague put me right. The content of the statement isn’t important. It’s the fact that it exists that is important. This was surely Ramaphosa taking control of the process in a rather public fashion. This is essentially a process that will determine the future of Zuma. But the only statement talking about it is from Ramaphosa. That is surely significant. It seems to show that Zuma is not in control of the process, that actually, Ramaphosa is.

It is a common complaint at the moment that Ramaphosa is letting this all take too long, that he is being held hostage by Zuma, that he’s being played. It is human, especially with someone like Zuma still lurking around like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime, to want a quick resolution. But perhaps, just perhaps, something much more fundamental is happening. To succeed in the longer term Ramaphosa needs to do two things at this stage. He needs to get Zuma out. But he also needs to keep the ANC together, with himself in charge. This is now the process that may well be happening. By dragging things out like this, power is ebbing from Zuma. Over time it becomes obvious that he is yesterday’s man. Time matters in political processes, because it affects perceptions.

You may think that Ramaphosa is weak now because this is taking so long. But when he gets Zuma out (as it looks like he will) then all you will remember in two months time is that he got Zuma out.

It is interesting to remember that something like this has happened before. Many years ago, back when Julius Malema was still leader of the ANC Youth League, there was a disciplinary process that led to his expulsion. It took literally years. When it began, my second born was not yet alive, no matter how the pro-life crowd would define it. When it finished, and he was expelled, she had celebrated (with much cake and giggles) her first birthday. In the process, Malema lost the political initiative entirely. And then had to start almost from scratch with the Economic Freedom Fighters. One of the architects of that process may well have been Gwede Mantashe, the other one Cyril Ramaphosa.

After all of that thinking, it was time to go and do some talking, and onto the wireless. I don’t know how this was done, but an incredible producer I happen to work with managed to convince someone in Baleka Mbete’s office to let us speak to the National Assembly Speaker for the second time in less than a week.

Mbete can be tough to interview; she has often been forced onto the defensive, and has found herself in the difficult position of trying to protect both Parliament and the ANC. And then, often, Zuma as well. That is almost impossible to do and surely an indication that we should never again allow a party office bearer to be the Speaker. It was time to put the shouty stick away and bring out the honey. It is important in interviews with people who hold high office to show respect.

I started by asking her if she was confident that the Budget speech would go ahead in two weeks’ time. It is incredibly important, our credibility kind of rests on it. She suggested that she was really waiting for the ANC and the executive to sort things out. But for certainty, as she put it, “that’s not yet here”. She also said that she would prefer to have a State of the Nation Address before a Budget speech, but that “of course extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures”.

Then I asked, “Do you know who would deliver the Budget speech?”

She couldn’t help laughing in her response, “I suspect it will be the Minister of Finance… don’t ask me who,” she said.

But underneath it all was also a sense of frustration and embarrassment that the SONA has been postponed. She is quite rightly annoyed at having to cancel things. Then there was the timing issue, when you could hold this, how much notice would you need? Her reply may turn out to be revealing. She needs about 48 hours’ notice to do it properly, so she “could do it Monday or Tuesday, but more comfortably Thursday”.

Thursday then. I’ll mark it in my diary.

But perhaps the best quote from the interview is probably this, “Let’s just wait for the Presidency to come back to us, otherwise we’ll just drive ourselves nuts….”.

Nuts. A lovely word in this context.

There were several take aways from the Mbete interview. She clearly thinks things could move quite quickly. But also, she is surely out of the real loop, the loop that power really runs through. For someone who just seven weeks ago was the Chair of the ANC, this must be fairly frustrating.

Then it was time to run through all the options with Phephelaphi Dube from the Centre for Constitutional Rights. She pointed out something I hadn’t quite understood correctly before, saying that if the president resigns, the deputy simply takes over. That is that. And once they’ve sworn the oath they have all the powers of the president, they are the president, finish en klaar. Which means that things could move quite quickly. If and when they move.

By now Twitter had picked up a video from eNCA’s Leigh Anne Jansen. She must have eagle eyes. The video showed Shaun Abrahams moving towards Tuynhuis, with several other men. What on earth could they be there for, you ask. I simply don’t know. But let speculation reign.

It was then time to dash home, see my beloved and the children and start to write. And at this point Spock, clearly aggrieved at not yet having been mentioned by name in this piece, decided to walk across the keyboaoieir%%sl.

Some entities are above being recalled. Or even feeling pressure.

So, maybe we’ll know soon. Maybe we won’t. But power is shifting. DM

Photo: SA Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and SA President Jacob Zuma. (GCIS)

Gallery

"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

0