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Jacob Zuma’s fate is but a symptom of a deep, dramati...

South Africa


Jacob Zuma’s fate is but a symptom of a deep, dramatic power shift within the ANC

Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile) | Deputy President David Mabuza. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Freddy Mavunda) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Getty Images / Bloomberg / Waldo Swiegers) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. | Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.

The statement of the ANC published on Tuesday in response to the public show of support for Zuma on Sunday at Nkandla is a demonstration of how, step by infinitesimal step, the balance of power in the party has changed fundamentally.

As the legal wrangling over whether or not former president Jacob Zuma will be arrested and how that will happen continued deep into the night on Wednesday, and even as he was on his way to jail, over the longer term it may be the underpinning political events that prove to be much more important. The ANC’s attitude to this situation, and its strong backing of the judiciary, the Constitution and constitutionalism in general, may turn out to be more significant in the years to come than Zuma’s sentence of imprisonment.

The ANC’s recent National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting and its emphatic decisions also show just how significantly the power in the party has changed, to a point where it is now prepared to support the jailing of the man who dominated it so emphatically for so long. All of this is, of course, a boost for President Cyril Ramaphosa, and could further help the removal of those who have opposed him, personally, and his agenda.

The statement of the ANC published on Tuesday in response to the public show of support for Zuma on Sunday at Nkandla is a demonstration of how, step by infinitesimal step, the balance of power in the party has changed fundamentally over the last three years.

The NEC said that it noted, “Our unequivocal commitment to and defence of the Constitution, in particular the supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary, amongst the founding principles and values of the Republic.” 

It went on to say that the NEC “reaffirmed our understanding that we consciously chose a democratic system and constitutional dispensation. It was not an accident, concession or a compromise, but rather an expression of our fundamental values and beliefs as espoused by the African Claims, the Freedom Charter, the Harare Declaration and the Constitutional Principles. The meeting stressed that it must always be clear that the interests of an individual cannot take precedence over or jeopardise the interests of our democracy or of the nation.”

While the statement did not mention Zuma by name, it was obvious who was being referred to.

In the press conference that followed the publication of the statement, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte said she still hoped that the Constitutional Court would not order Zuma to go to jail.

Some have seen this as a contradiction of the main thrust of the statement, but that may not necessarily be the case. It is clear that the party believes, firmly, that the rule of law must be followed. But there is nothing wrong with also hoping, as a human being, that someone you worked with for many years does not have to spend time behind bars. That would allow someone to both show sympathy and to uphold the rule of law.

The more important issue is how things have changed. 

In December 2017, just 3½ years ago, Zuma’s preferred candidate for the presidency of the ANC, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, lost by just 179 votes to Ramaphosa. Very few people then would have believed that just 3½ years later the ANC NEC would stand behind the Constitution and against Zuma. Or that an ANC-appointed police minister, himself from KZN, would say in public the SAPS were prepared to arrest Zuma to comply with the law.

This again underscores the unique nature of this situation. It is not just that a former president is being arrested, it is that that person’s political party is still in power, which makes this so rare.

At the same time, while Zuma and his supporters have issued direct public challenges to the rule of law and the authority of the Constitutional Court, this NEC statement is vital for many other reasons.

There have been some suggestions that Ramaphosa should speak up for the rule of law. But the message of support for the judiciary is now that much stronger, coming from the NEC. While Ramaphosa could have spoken up, any comments by him could have been used against him, and he could have been accused of using the law to deal with personal opponents.

Now it is the might of the ANC NEC that has made this statement. And any comment by Ramaphosa will simply be a reiteration of the substance. He can preface answers to questions with, “Well, as the NEC of the governing party has said…”.

While Zuma still does have some support, the vast majority of South Africans are appalled by the corruption and incompetence that crippled the country while he was president. Zuma is the symbol of everything that was wrong, and the testimony of multiple witnesses at the Zondo Commission has revealed the role that he played.

It would now appear virtually impossible for the ANC, and the NEC, to walk their strong statement back. They have said, publicly, after a full meeting, that they back the judiciary, that the “interests of an individual cannot take precedence… over the interests of our democracy”. 

While Zuma still does have some support, the vast majority of South Africans are appalled by the corruption and incompetence that crippled the country while he was president. Zuma is the symbol of everything that was wrong, and the testimony of multiple witnesses at the Zondo Commission has revealed the role that he played.

For the party to shield him from jail could well cost them many votes in the coming elections.

This could even be a useful moment for the party. Zuma could be turned into the symbol of corruption and on the campaign trail the ANC leaders could claim that they are prepared to take action against corruption by their own, as evidenced by Zuma’s incarceration. This could be useful with some voters. 

Of course, there have been important steps along the way to this moment.

The first was the NEC (the same group of people which make up the NEC now) who voted overwhelmingly that Zuma should vacate his position as president of South Africa in 2018.

Then there were the difficult moments when it appeared Zuma might refuse to leave, his actual resignation, the ongoing testimony at the Zondo Commission, Zuma’s failure to stop the election of a joint ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal, the NEC’s “step-aside resolution”, and the decision that Ace Magashule should be suspended as secretary-general.

All of these, and others, have been crucial moments in this process, but that process is not necessarily complete.

While it is still likely that this will end with Zuma going to prison, there are others who are now going to find themselves in a difficult political position.

The NEC has resolved that there will be investigations into those who were at Nkandla and who spoke in favour of Zuma. 

These would appear to include Tony Yengeni, Magashule and perhaps even the Human Settlements Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, along with several others. Even a man as insignificant as Carl Niehaus is not being spared.

By going to Nkandla and displaying their support for Zuma, it is possible that they will be accused of also displaying their rejection of Ramaphosa and of the NEC’s statement. As a result, there could be disciplinary processes against them. And thus Ramaphosa may now be able to oversee their removal.

This could spell the end of major resistance to Ramaphosa within the ANC. And, perhaps as important, it could be the end of public resistance from ANC figures towards Ramaphosa. 

This does not mean there will be no opposition, or that he will be able to do what he wants in the ANC. There are simply too many constituencies within the party for that to happen. But it could be the end of this phase of our politics.

All of this, should it play out in this way, could be a vindication of Ramaphosa’s “long game” approach. It would suggest that he was right to take the longer, more difficult route of using legal processes, both in South Africa and in the ANC, rather than the quicker, more direct methods of majoritarian politics.

As Professor Anthony Butler once noted, it shows how Ramaphosa first used the power of ANC process against Magashule, and thus ensured that no one in the party could retain their position after being criminally charged. It also suggests, as Jonny Steinberg has pointed out, that Ramaphosa has been right to prioritise the rule of law in all ways, rather than to abuse his position as president to achieve his aims.

Of course, the focus over the short term is on Zuma and his possible or probable arrest. While that is important, it may symbolise something much more significant for our future: that the politics of the ANC has changed dramatically. At least for now. DM


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All Comments 35

  • Stephen, you are the perpetual optimist. But for once I hoping you are right. A fundamental shift in moving from the ANC looking after themselves and their cadres is probably still a way off, and the curbing of the institutionalized corruption is a even further down the line, but here’s hoping that this is the first step.
    I’ll join you in some very cautious optimism.

    • Ramaphosa has always been committed to the long game. Although he was Mandela’s preferred candidate to succeed Mbeki, he was sidelined by the Zuma faction. He used the time to accumulate wealth and build alliances within and outside of the ANC. Commentators tend to ignore the fact that, as one of the major architects of the SA Constitution, he has a deep commitment to ensure that it should work. It should not be a surprise that he has marshalled all these forces — his wealth, his alliances and the constitution — to consolidate his power and drive towards his longer term goals. Whether his long game approach is sufficient to turn SA around by purging the ANC of its systemic corruption and incompetence, primarily because of cadre deployment and BEE, remains to be seen. Anyone who believes this will happen soon is an optimist. In my view, the proverbial jury is still out about where all of this goes in the medium to longer term.

  • The cadre system that Zuma and Magashule used to capture the state backfired on them. All those comfortably ensconced cadres are too comfortable to develop loyalty.

  • Yes, the long game. Thank you President Ramaphosa for demonstrating a calm but resolute determination and great moral courage. I salute you for building a growing culture of respect for the rule of law.

    • I agree with you. There have been many of our compatriots over the past several days who’ve been adamant that Ramaphosa should’ve intervened in this Zuma shambles.

      As Stephen writes, this would have backfired on Ramaphosa, with accompanied by the rabid accusations of political motivation for locking Zuma up. Instead he did the right thing, sat back & let the law run its course.

      Reminds me of Sun Tzu’s quote: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”

      • Excellent comment. I have long said that one should never underestimate CR. I base my minority optimism on his CV as brilliantly laid out by Professor Anthony Butler

  • Optimism prevails until the next crisis and misstep, which will surely come. There are still too many deployed cadres with turf to protect, money to be made and power to hold on to. It will never end as long as the ANC is in power. Local elections are coming and I predict that there will be not a single change in any province from current status quo. Even in the face of 100s of non functional and bankrupt municipalities. South Africans deserve their lot in life if they choose to keep the kleptomaniacal ANC in power of their municipalities.

  • Are we talking about the same event? Because it’s not what I saw. I saw a recalcitrant ANC publicly talking “rule of law” but privately supporting the crook from Nkandla. I saw a police minister and police commissioner refusing to act on a constitutional instruction. I saw a mob breaking several SoD laws. I saw Duarte cancelling a NEC meeting, which handed Zuma a massive platform. I saw an event that brought us as a constitutional democracy to the edge of a precipe. I saw a defiant ex-president refusing to the bitter end to comply. I didn’t see our President at all.

    • Yes, it is easy to see that! And yet, what Stephen says is true, if one is prepared to look beyond the hype at the the real issues here. From a comfortable, middle-class perspective there is much to criticise. As Stephen says “there is nothing wrong with also hoping, as a human being, that someone you worked with for many years does not have to spend time behind bars. That would allow someone to both show sympathy and to uphold the rule of law”. I salute Cyril for his careful, reasonable strategy to restore democracy to South Africa. Now I am prepared to get behind his “Tuma mina” campaign – it is time we all stop whingeing and start work on reducing inequality, reforming education, delivering services and building the new South Africa we would like too see. It is time to give up the national sport of negative criticism. Let’s move forward with intelligence, compassion, a human spirit and positive energy!

      • Yes, maybe we can now see if we can take a breather from our justified cynicism and give Cyril – and ourselves – a chance. We may be wrong, but complaining is damn tiring.

      • You are talking to someone who has been behind the ANC since I was in my 20’s in the eighties, up until about 7/8 years ago, when Zuma got voted in for a second term. I didn’t vote ANC during that election, and not since. At this point, there is nothing, ZERO, to be positive about. If you think Ramaphosa is going save the country, the economy and you along with it when it responds to a constitutional dilemma like they just have, good luck. I have 100% given up on the ANC. And its not a question of whining or complaining, or being negative. Its a question of being realistic.

        • Absolutely right! One arrest and the blind go ape! When BEE and cadre deployment goes, I will say something good has happened in the ANC. Until then it is all smoke. The ANC is a racist party.

  • ” … South Africans are appalled by the corruption and incompetence that crippled the country while he was president …” of and supported by the anc, including cr.

    • Agree. And where is the ANC’s much touted ‘collective responsibility’? CR and the rest of his supporters continue to let the courts do their dirty work. They supported Zuma to the hilt while he was president yet take no collective responsibility for his actions.

      • It is not ‘dirty work’ but merely putting once trust in the democratic processes. Give the President the credit that he deserved for his political acumen.

  • It’s a long process, but the constitutionalists (and those masquerading as constitutionalists for convenience) in the ANC getting a firm upper hand is fantastic.

    Hopefully we can now more fully rehabilitate the Public Protector, Hawks, State Security Agency, Eskom, Transnet, further fund the NPA etc.

    In hindsight we have come a long way from the likes of Malusi, Des, Brian, Mosebenzi and the Gupta’s running the show.

    Lets not kid ourselves though, we still need to hold those in power accountable to the constitution on an ongoing basis or hard won gains will disappear quickly.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more headlines around Estina and VBS prosecutions, as well as legal diversion of funds (or the threat of it) from broken municipalities to organised civic action groups who take over municipality tasks, which to me could be an accountability game changer at grass routes level.

  • Lets not forget that for 10 years the ANC in its entirety defended Zuma, motion of no confidence after motion of no confidence. We are here because of them, and yesterday did not invoke a feeling that the ANC is now actually accountable to anyone or anything. That a man that facilitated over a trillion rand of waste and theft will now go to jail for maybe 4 months after 5-10 years of mainly tax payer paid litigation is not a victory, it’s actually extremely sad. And we should also remind ourselves that we are talking about one person finally facing the music of a group of people that’s by now has to be at least 3 digits high, all with the blessings of the illustrious ANC, and all while the theft is still in full swing as we so clearly have seen.

      • I struggle to understand the attitude. In my book this is a pivotal moment in our country. One in which the rule of law has been tested and upheld. Is South Africa perfect? No. Is it likely to be made perfect in 1 day? Absolutely not. Has it been incredibly hard for the ANC itself to achieve this? Very likely. My compliments to Cyril Ramaphosa and all who support him within the ANC.

  • ….”the politics of the ANC has changed dramatically”. But the thieving and incompetence has not. Zuma’s incarceration is no cause for celebration while the ANC continues to plunder the country (c.f. Mkhize’s latest little COVID adventure) – even under the leadership of our ‘saviour’ CR who is using the media and the courts to fight his battles within the ANC.

  • Shouldn’t Zuma’s bail in the arms deal case now be forfeited to the state, and that bail be cancelled? It is normal for bail conditions to include not to be found guilty of a crime. That means he remains imprisoned and should not go on bail after 3 or 4 months.

  • Thanks a lot Cyril.
    We must remember that without Cyril the legal processes that have slowly been taking place, would not have happened ….. yet no-one can point a finger at him for doing anything …… the system did it and the law is simply being followed.
    The biggest thing that most people are missing is the panicked rush that Zuma went off to prison ….. just before over 100 Police vehicles with all the para-military Police available in them arrived to ‘force’ the issue.

  • I used to harshly criticise Ramaphosa’s “slow game”. Well, as each day passes, it appears I may have jumped the gun. Sadly, I still can’t trust him. He has held high office for over a decade and was witness to the grand scale looting, yet did nothing, until now. Due to the media and public pressure. His “Smart City” is a pipe dream. If he was serious about saving our economy he should privatise all SOE’s and municipalities with “immediate effect”. Oh and speed up the green IPP’s. There’s no time to waste. Eskom is falling apart before our eyes.

  • “Even a man as insignificant as Carl Niehaus is not being spared”

    Actually, because he is insignificant, he was suspended from the currently rulling party. None of the less insignificant have been despite their obvious & visible attituides etc etc etc

  • As great an admirer of you as I am, Stephen, you seem to be glossing over the fact that the ruling ANC is to all intents and purposes a corrupt organisation. Just look at the corruption that has still taken place since being hit by Covid – as an example. That was under the BEE BILLIONAIRE’S watch. Can you in all honesty say there has been a slow-down in corruption since the exit of Zuma . Stephen, your next article can perhaps explain to us how the likes of Zizi Kodwa are still in the cabinet . why has our suspended Minister of Health not been fired on the spot. I can list many more to make a great article. In the meantime I will put this article down to too much celebration that the arrest of ZUMA has given us.

  • Don’t punt the ANC too much, things can always go backwards. And nothing has changed for the common man-in-the-street.

  • Let’s hope that CR now has the balls to Fire the corrupt ministers, DGs, and incompetents. That will free up a few Rmillions to be shared amongst the front line workers who are faced with life challenging tasks, and the NPA.

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