Opinionista Nel Marais 9 February 2015

Just how endless might the Zuma-era be?

So we’re all on the edge of our seats as the State of the Nation (SONA) countdown begins in earnest. And while the ANC has been worrying whether there is a diversion loud enough to distract us from the President’s speech and possible humiliation by the EFF, he also appears rather preoccupied with getting his ex-wife a job.

The ANC succession debate has always been a discreet behind-the-scenes affair with clear rules of engagement that have generally, albeit grudgingly, been followed in an almost charming display of respect for the institution itself.

Other rules have been followed with similar consistency with consecutive leaderships making their way up the ANC electoral hierarchy branch by branch, exemplifying a political code that has survived a barrage of efforts to divide and rule from both within and without. The almost proud privacy embedded in this same code has enabled the steadfastly protectionist corralling of the president in recent months (at least) and can be construed as explicit evidence of a genuine and deeply rooted instinct to shield the ANC itself from the associated contagion. It goes back to the time when the ANC was still a liberation movement, but it was consolidated into the organisation’s foundations during the leadership uncertainty that threatened the party in the period immediately before and after the 1994 national elections. Now it presents as a longstanding political intimacy that simultaneously bespeaks the boundaries that legitimise it. But, like any relationship, there are limits.

The ANC would like the country (and its ordinary supporters) to believe that the presidential succession debate is officially off the agenda until 2017, but a host of efforts to demarcate political claims are already underway. This is not unusual and the implicit face-off between the President and his premier pointman – Cyril Ramaphosa – has been defining peripheral debates since the new team took over. Less usual, however, is the President’s apparently dogmatic insistence on personally fingering his own heir apparent. Having ascertained that Jeff whose-side-is-he-on Radebe is not very keen to take the top job, Zuma is apparently determined to give the job to his ex-wife. With talk that he may also want to hold on to the ANC Presidency for at least another two years, as per the North West’s recent political toe in the water, South Africa could soon be a real little mom and pop shop.

He may not, however, be able to swing it that far. He’s breaking many of those unwritten rules (again) and, frankly, he does not have much to work with. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma has not been an easy sell for some time, despite an impressive and enduring record in government, especially when compared to the miserable executive standards with which Zuma has been satisfied. She has served under each consecutive President since Nelson Mandela and garnered experience in the Health, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs portfolios in the process.

She has also shown valiant streaks of independence throughout and, as Thabo Mbeki’s Foreign Minister in 2007, went as far as to defy the Zuma camp to stand on the Mbeki slate. She has pockets of support in KwaZulu/Natal and while she may not be the province’s preferred candidate, this may be one of the factors in her favour from Zuma’s perspective, as the province looks increasingly like a dry run for 2017, with the Mchunu-Zikalala confrontation looming large in the wake of national cries for Bheki Cele to be restored to march on crime once again.

There is, however, little else that will persuade the ANC (bar that still elusive elite that must at all costs preserve the president and the interests that accrue via association) that she is the right person for the job. She was never an appalling Minister, but little hiccups like Virodene and her perceived loyalty to Mbeki before, will make people nervous. The fact that Zuma took her back to make her the minister of, appropriately, Home Affairs, in 2009, suggests that he has never stopped trusting her despite cynical comments that her dispatch to the African Union Commission (AUC) in 2012 was an attempt to keep her and any concomitant threat well out of the way.

And it is since she has been at the AU, where whispers that her appointment was secured with a substantial dowry extended by Angola’s Dos Santos family have never fully subsided, that she has entrenched her reputation as difficult. It was an arduous and expensive appointment to secure, with massive Francophone resistance, and she has not managed to win the AU around and has failed to heal the divisions her appointment brought to the surface.

While she has received public praise for her AUC job locally and within SADC, no one in Addis is likely to beg her to stay should she, as is rumoured, announce her departure within the next few weeks to be at her ex-husband’s side. Besides the fact that she has remained largely unlikeable – with the descriptor “arrogant” apparently a virtual prefix to her name – pertinent critique includes a lack of strategic vision; failure to implement many of the admittedly difficult institutional reforms she promised (notably the AU’s finances); and a tendency to micromanage that has slowed decision-making. She also insisted on taking with her some of South Africa’s best and brightest civil servants, including a few spooks, which added fuel to her ex-Cabinet colleagues’ fires. None of this has endeared her to her fellow commissioners or those that she must now face back in South Africa.

She has displayed little of the subtlety and diplomacy that was sorely needed to counter historic antipathy of SA’s big brother identity and has defended her appointment of a “kitchen cabinet” dominated by South Africans by saying that SA was paying for these staff members. She has done little to forge relations between the AU and UN and has been repeatedly criticised for failing to build viable personal relationships more or less across the board. The most blatant insult to the AU has been her repeated absences to attend ANC NEC meetings – which now, of course, starts to make more political sense. The contempt is no longer disguised, with leading Francophone journal Jeune Afrique, openly calling on her not to seek a second term – as is the tradition within the AUC – in office in 2016 due to what it deems South African dominance of AU decision-making.

However, now that she has largely failed, in full view of the Continent (and as Mbeki predicted), to run the AUC, President Zuma would make her President. With insiders claiming that she has already decided to leave, it seems that she may have accepted the proposal. In the process, she would have effectively destroyed any chance of salvaging the diminishing returns on the massive investment the country made in her AUC appointment and restoring relations will be difficult should she end up in charge of South Africa.

The ANC Women’s League has said nothing in public, but it has previously been willing to support either Dlamini-Zuma or Baleka Mbete as the country’s first woman president (because Mr Zuma said we were ready), and it has long since done very little except support the President anyway. So it seems that the President has it all planned out.

Others that might have thought themselves to be in the running – either for the presidency or the deputy spot – must be bemused if not flabbergasted. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, our Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, has in recent times emerged as a potential frontrunner, partly because of her fidelity to Zuma, but she might soon realise that in the Zuma world blood (or marriage) trumps loyalty.  

One can only imagine what Ramaphosa must think of these moves, as well as Gwede Mantashe, who has in recent months emerged from his traditional role as apparatchik, starting to lay careful claim to something more… sexy? Not to mention the impi of other male Zulu aspirants, such as the ANC’s moneyman, Zweli Mkhize, who may be wondering, with a little alarm, whether a matriarchal dispensation is dawning.        

Should the ANC decide to settle down again under the sway of the controlling interest that will sanctify this very arranged marriage of the two centres of power going forward, Zuma looks set to stay and the assembling of forces at this year’s National General Council (NGC) in June will be a vital indicator of whether or not there will be any cohesive counter-push that could change the direction from South Africa from being directed by Zuma for another term. Given the mass cringing that the President’s recidivist embarrassments have been inducing in the corridors of Luthuli House, and the astonishing prospect of an endless Zuma era it must surely be close to time for the counter-cabal to emerge from the shadows. DM

This column was co-written by Jo Davies.

Davies started her career lecturing Afrikaans at the University of the Transkei and then moved to the Department of Arts and Culture where she worked as a language practitioner on a range of new legislation and policy documents. In 1997 she was employed as an editor for the newly constituted South African Secret Service before joining the National Intelligence Agency as an analyst with a special focus on the SADC region. She resigned from the NIA in 2003 to pursue a freelance career that has extended her focus to multiple risk related issues across the Continent.

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