While speaking to the Congress of South African Students on Wednesday evening, former president Jacob Zuma gave a “don’t provoke me” warning to his critics. At the same time, in what should technically be an unrelated development, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is finally due to hold its conference, at which it will elect new leadership. Once again, the centre of gravity of our politics is back in KZN.
Former president Jacob Zuma suggested that because he was no longer president, he was free to take action against his critics and detractors. Zuma is due to appear in court on Friday morning, in relation to the corruption charges against him, in what is likely to be a quick procedure.
Zuma appeared to be in a bellicose mood on Wednesday evening. He had been invited to speak on the subject of free higher education by the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) at Durban City Hall. TV stations showed images of him leaving his podium, taking a microphone in his hands and then stating:
“There are people who like to talk about me, who are provoking me, and I’ve been keeping quiet when I was the president of the country in respect to them. And not that I didn’t have anything to say… I’m not having responsibilities, and I want to warn them, they must keep quiet, they must discuss their organisation and not me. Because I have things to say about their organisation also. I don’t want to, because I think I know why I was part of the Struggle, why I’m part of the leadership.”
And then came the headline quote:
“They must not provoke me.”
The comments were clearly a response to the SACP and its general secretary, Transport Minister Blade Nzimande. On Sunday, speaking for his party, Nzimande had said:
“In many ways, former president Zuma is at the heart of this counter-revolutionary fightback, together with a circle of discredited individuals, many themselves facing the likelihood of criminal prosecution.”
At the same briefing, Nzimande had specifically pointed out that KZN was the “seed-bed” for this agenda.
This means then that Zuma appears to be saying that he is not afraid of taking the fight back to the SACP. But the question is then raised: what would he actually do? Making veiled threats and claims has been a trademark of Zuma’s political behaviour for many years. During the trial of Schabir Shaik that led to the current charges against him, he made reference after reference to a “political conspiracy” against him, but refused to provide details.
The Nicholson Judgment, which referred to the actions of then president Thabo Mbeki in possibly influencing his prosecution, was then seized upon as the final proof of his claims. But that judgment was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal. In 2011, during a funeral for a former bodyguard, Zuma made a veiled reference to a possible plot to kill him, but refused to provide details. More recently, he has claimed that he was poisoned because of his determination to help the BRICS group of nations. Considering that it was one of his wives who was investigated for the incident, it is more likely that his actions in another arena may have been responsible.
So, could this time be any different? The conspiracy theorists might suggest that Zuma has dirt on people in the SACP, and that this is a warning to them. But surely the moment for Zuma to have used whatever dirt he has available on anyone was just before the ANC’s Nasrec conference? That was the moment when the stakes were at their highest for him. The fact that no dirt emerged in public in such a crucial and life-altering moment suggests that his “dirt” may well just have been a political fable.
Considering the complicated nature of our politics, it is also possible that another dynamic may be at play. The SACP has in the past been a weather vane of possible future developments. It was the first member of the alliance to take on the problems at the SABC and Hlaudi Motsoeneng, which by 2017 transformed into its determination to remove Zuma from the Presidency.
It is even possible that in this newest case the SACP has called Zuma out deliberately, hoping to provoke him, and his supporters in the ANC, out in the open. This could then allow a reaction to develop that could lead to some sort of censure against Zuma by the NEC. It might feel far-fetched at the moment, but it is certainly a possible outcome.
A key test of Zuma’s support in the ANC will be in the moments before and after his court appearance on Friday. He will be hoping that thousands of people will wait outside; the numbers will be hotly contested afterwards. Key to this will be whether any important ANC leaders, and particularly people like former and probably future KZN ANC leader Sihle Zikalala, might appear. If they do, it will be a sign that they feel confident enough that they will not be censured by the NEC in doing this. Particularly if they then go against the formal NEC resolution that members of the ANC who go to court to support Zuma in their personal capacity do not wear ANC regalia while doing so.
In some ways, it could be the perfect way for Zikalala and those who support him to kick off their conference. At the moment there appears to be no named challenger to Zikalala, and so he could well be elected uncontested. However, the real action could come afterwards, once again in court. This is because the people who oppose him, generally speaking those who backed now President Cyril Ramaphosa at Nasrec, are unhappy that it is taking place at all. While the NEC, technically led by ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule on this issue, has given the all-clear for it to go ahead, those who oppose Zikalala are unlikely to let the matter rest.
This is also important to the balance of power in the NEC itself. Should KZN actually change in any meaningful way, should it become significantly less in Zuma’s favour, that would be a big shift towards Ramaphosa. But this seems unlikely at the moment. It is more likely that the outcomes will continue to be viewed as illegitimate.
While this may not matter much to many people, it could also allow the political climate in KZN to remain as it is. And this is the real problem. The number of deaths related to politics in the province has continued to rise throughout 2018. Despite Magashule’s assertion that they are only a “criminal” matter, they are surely related to the contestation within the ANC itself. To resolve this, there needs to be a political solution acceptable to all who are involved. That political solution appears very far off.
What is absolutely clear is that the problems, which led to such a tense show-down at Nasrec 2017, tend to revolve around KZN. The ANC KZN conference itself may not turn out to be the test of strength between the remnants of the machine that first brought Zuma to power, and those who believe that there is a “new dawn” in the country some are hoping for.
And no matter what happens in court on Friday, or at the conference through the weekend, they will not be resolved for the foreseeable future. DM
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