South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Project Defending Zuma will struggle to make inroads

Analysis: Project Defending Zuma will struggle to make inroads

On Friday morning former President Jacob Zuma is expected to appear in court in Durban at the start of what could be a very lengthy court trial. In some ways, Friday’s event will not matter much: it will be brief, and mainly concern legal logistics. But the political symbolism of the moment will make it matter very much. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It appears that many people in the ANC are very aware of the momentousness of this Friday’s expected court appearance in Durban by former president Jacob Zuma, especially after both Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa attended the same northern KwaZulu-Natal church over the weekend. Considering that in so many societies religion and politics are hugely intertwined, this should not be surprising.

Religious leaders and politicians have many similarities. Speaking in public is important to their careers; the ability to speak in many tongues can help when it comes to wrapping a message in metaphor. They also have constituencies which can determine whether they are successful or not. And they have to manage complex problems that these constituencies can throw up. It is no surprise that religious leaders have often played a big part in political movements, particularly when the fight was about freedom. Consider the histories of Father Martin Luther King Jnr and, of course, our own Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

But hosting and communicating with political leaders can always throw up certain problems. Imagine being the priest who hosted US President Donald Trump for the Easter Sunday service, or the variety of religious leaders who were involved with Bill Clinton.

In South Africa, there is a certain history with Zuma and churches. He was once ordained as an “honorary preacher” at an evangelical church in Durban, and there have been many formal prayers for him. And of course, he has often used biblical language, including the infamous claim that the ANC will govern “until Jesus comes”.

But that is not to say that his path with organised religion has always been smooth. When he took over as president in 2009 a group of religious leaders, including people like Rhema’s Ray McCauley, appeared to be trying to get close to him. The reason they did this was because it would help them appear big and powerful with their followers; it was the time-honoured tradition of humanity – get close to the powerful.

As Zuma’s public actions started to look more and more immoral, the said church leaders slowly moved away from him. By the end of it, McCauley was at a SaveSA protest in November 2016. This is a good indicator of some religious leaders’ political instincts. They, like politicians, have core constituencies, constituencies they simply cannot live without. They cannot justify continued immoral behaviour to their flock, or if you prefer, they cannot tolerate people living in sin.

And of course, you would not want, as a priest, to get too close to someone who loses in the end. However, the best possible way around it is to have the leaders of both factions in any dispute address your flock as close to each other as possible. Which means that it may have felt more like Christmas than Easter for those who run the Covenant Fellowship Church International in Esikhaleni. Certainly, they would have looked incredibly important to their followers.

All of this brings us to the difficult question of how and why did this happen, why did both Zuma and Ramaphosa attend the same church over the same weekend? First, it is entirely possible that any lightening alarms went off when Zuma suggested that it was only a “coincidence”. Considering the number of public events at which both he and Ramaphosa have attended since Nasrec, this is surely more of a miracle than a coincidence. The question then becomes who went there first, why, and why did the other follow.

Biblically, considering recent political events, it would probably have been more appropriate for Zuma to attend the church on the day Christ was crucified, and for Ramaphosa to have attended on the day he was born again, but it appears their roles were reversed.

It goes without saying that the geography here is important. This is KZN, the one province where Zuma still has strong support. It is also the province in which Zuma will be tried. In other words, it is the place that is likely to be the political battleground for the ANC over the next few months, and possibly years. On Sunday, City Press reported that some of Zuma’s supporters within the ANC were furious that he was used to campaign during the voter registration weekend, but was now considered not good enough for the ANC to formally support when he appears on Friday. This follows the national executive committee decision that no ANC structures can give him formal support, and that no one can wear ANC clothing to court. This obviously ignores the fact that Ramaphosa may not necessarily have wanted Zuma to campaign during the voter registration weekend. Rather, this was Zuma using that weekend for his own interests. He wasn’t using it to campaign for the ANC, he was using it to campaign for himself.

It is also important here to examine Zuma’s claims around why he is being tried, and his comments that even though he is no longer in power, people are “still after me”. These claims don’t hold up. He is being prosecuted because of what he himself did long before he was leader of the ANC. Every single judge who has heard the case about whether he should be prosecuted has come to the same conclusion – that he must finally face the music. In other words, for him to claim, as he is finally about to have “his day in court”, that he is being persecuted, is hard to sustain. Never mind the fact that Schabir Shaik was convicted (in a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court, no less) for giving him the money that he has been proven to have received.

Considering the strength of the legal case against him, it would appear that the political avenue is all that’s left to Zuma. This means that, not for the first time in his life, he has to fight incredibly hard, and not be bothered by what damage is caused to other institutions in the process.

But the evidence suggests that he is going to have an uphill battle in this.

It is obviously true that he can count on the support of people like ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and his deputy Jessie Duarte. But that appears to be all he has in the Top Six. Last week, Deputy President David Mabuza publicly lambasted Magashule for his R20-million leaving party to mark his resignation as Premier of the Free State, making the obvious point that he, Mabuza, had also recently left his province and yet had had no need of such an occasion.

This surely suggests that in any fight between Ramaphosa and Zuma, Mabuza will go with Ramaphosa, as he reportedly did during the process that led to Zuma’s exit from the Union Buildings. Treasurer Paul Mashatile will obviously go with Ramaphosa too, which means that of the national leadership, Magashule and Duarte’s help would not matter much for Zuma (as an aside, this little incident involving Mabuza and Magashule may suggest that any kind of early national election is impossible until the party is properly unified).

In the NEC, the picture is obviously more complicated. But, as has been suggested extensively in the past, it is surely true that many of them will be looking both at the past and into the future, with particular emphasis on their position in that future. This means they will only support Zuma in public if they have to, or if they believe it is better for them, a decision that hinges entirely on the balance of power in the ANC. And, as the result of Nasrec showed, this balance is not in favour of Zuma. (We’re talking about the very same NEC that decided to remove Zuma from power 15 months before his official mandate was to expire.)

Zuma is likely to try his best to get as many people as possible to court on Friday. But whatever the volume of their protests, and the claims they will make, it seems unlikely at this stage that he will be able to actually use any political campaign to derail his trial. This means that the protests will be big and important on the first day of the trial. But by the end of it, it may be a very different picture, and not a good one for Zuma. To paraphrase him, it is cold outside the ANC presidency. DM

Photo: (FILE) A file photograph dated 06 August 2015 shows South African president Jacob Zuma reacts whilst answering questions from opposition parties in parliament, Cape Town, 06 August 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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