In any democracy, anywhere, the health of the head of state is a political story. Which means that when President Jacob Zuma arrived at Parliament on Tuesday night, the way he looked, after ten days of “rest”, was always going to be the main talking point. It would take a speaker of Obama proportions to make Twitter trend with “#DevelopmentalFundingInstitutions” rather than #ZumaHealth. So, of course, the gossip that started the day when both the ANC and government announced he was taking time off to rest was always going to peak when he next appeared in public. But then, on Sunday, the Sunday Times found a way to use the words “Zuma” and “Heart Scare” in the same, pithy sentence. This is now a fully-fledged political issue. But that does not mean it’s going to lead to political change.
Let’s just head off some inevitable criticism at the pass. It will come as no surprise to you, Mac, that we still believe we have a right to a fair amount of detail about the health of a politician. In this democracy, the president plays a key role, and much executive power, of Cabinet appointments, for a start, rests with him. Never mind the growing fracas at the National Prosecuting Authority. As a result, decision-makers & investors should be able to know something about who’s really in charge. So if Cyril Ramaphosa starts to fill in more and more for Zuma, then stand by for more and more questions. As annoying as those may be.
Then there’s another, quite important point to make. When it comes to the health of a senior politician, such as Zuma, when there are few facts to work with, it is tempting for people to confuse wishful thinking and analysis. As a result, those who oppose Zuma, be they politicians or analysts or writers or Tweeters, will claim it’s time to plan for the post-Zuma era, and those who support him will say this is just a small setback, and life is going to carry on as normal. Of course, those close to him would be more than human were they not always to look on the bright side, when they speak in public. (Which means that those who claim he is very ill are quite likely to be his enemies.)
So be careful what you believe. But don’t think that there will suddenly be radical change, and that Zuma is about to leave office. The evidence we have in front of us doesn’t really bare that out.
Now, to the evidence that we have. Let’s just put aside what we’ve been told for a moment, not because it’s untrue, but because we do need a starting point. It is this:
On Sunday 4 May, less than two months ago, Jacob Zuma rocked the FNB Stadium like no one else on the planet. He belted out the tunes, had the entire place in the palm of his hand, was energised, fit, strong, and very much in charge. Even by his own standards, it was a high-energy performance.
Then we have Tuesday evening in Parliament. Completely different. Thinner, it seemed, almost not quite filling out his suit. Less bounce in his step. And certainly, the voice was different. It didn’t have the power that it normally has. Most successful politicians have a swagger: Obama has it, Clinton more than most, George W. Bush, or Tony Blair. They all have a presence. Tony Leon and Helen Zille swagger as well, in their own way. It’s about bouncing into a room, full of energy, somehow with more oomph than the rest of us. Zuma used to have it in spades, laughing, smiling, ready to take anything in his stride.
It’s the swagger that was missing on Tuesday night. It has vanished completely.
This is something all of us can see with our own eyes, and we can all make our own judgments. Now, to what we have been told officially. If Zuma looked as he did on Tuesday evening, and that was after he had been resting for ten days, how did he look before he started resting? Presumably worse. Really bad.
When it comes to what can go on behind the scenes in situations like this, nothing, really nothing, is off the table. When Manto Tshabalala-Msimang went into hospital in 2007, we were told it was nothing too serious. Then she seemed to get liquid around her lungs. Then, in a move that sounded like sheer fantasy the first time I considered it, she had a liver transplant. Which took a lot of bullying and screaming and shouting before it was actually confirmed. The point is not that Zuma and the people around him are the same as Tshabalala-Msimang was then. It’s just to point out that really, anything is possible.
But, and we do need to have some thoughts in order, just in case, if the president is seriously ill, does it really matter? Yes, is the short answer. Because anyone at that stage of life (he’s 72) is likely to take a long time to recover from whatever may be ailing him. And while that is happening, he simply not going to have the energy for politics in the way that he normally does.
This means there would be a power vacuum, possibly quite small, possibly quite large, within government and within the ANC. His grip on power would be lessened. Which could embolden those who are ambitious. The person to really watch, of course, is Ramaphosa. As deputy president both de jure in government and de facto within the ANC, he has to tread incredibly carefully. While it might be tempting to try to take a little bit more power than you have been given, should Zuma recover, he might chop your head off when he returns. So any move is a risky one. But even without that dynamic, the fact is when the boss is away, people do try it on, they push the limits, no matter who they are. So all sorts of people, all the way down the chain, could misbehave in all sorts of ways. And that’s before we even factor in longer periods of presidential inaction on issues such as the NPA, or dealing with Nkandla, than usual.
Amid all of this, with very few facts to work with, there is one assumption it now appears safe to make. Zuma is 72. He’s had to take ten days off. No matter what happens now, no matter how hale and hearty he looks when we next see him, his health is now going to be a factor. People are going to talk about it. His enemies will use it against him. They now have a new weapon. And that makes him politically weaker. We just don’t know yet how much weaker, but weaker nonetheless. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
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