Even by the standards of our combustible politics, there is a frisson of excitement in the air that you don’t get very often. Instead of the damp of a Gauteng autumn, there’s the spark of a political spring, and the tang of real change at last. The hope, for many, of real change, and the possible removal from power of the man the middle classes love to hate, is enough to make one remember what it was like when Thabo Mbeki was recalled. It was exciting, thrilling, surprising and cathartic. It is unlikely to be like that again.
Of all the moments that I remember from the recall of Mbeki in 2008 it is the sight of the SABC pantechnicon that is the most vivid. It’s used only for live broadcasts of major national events. It was the Friday before Recall Saturday, outside Esselen Park.
Inside the premises was the ANC’s National Executive Committee, sitting tight behind locked doors. Outside were badly dressed reporters like myself, lounging around on car bonnets, experiencing that curious mixture of boredom and tension unique to our craft. Suddenly, this huge truck arrived. It had the logo of the SABC all over it. It was proof that something big was going to happen, that the recall was actually on the cards.
I’ve thought a lot of that image over the last few days. Once against radio call-ins are dominated by whether Zuma should stay or go, the ANC’s NEC is about to meet over the weekend, and people are thinking what might be.
But there are huge differences between then and now.
Perhaps the most important is that in 2008 there was actually a court judgment (eventually overturned on appeal) that Mbeki’s enemies could use against him. It was in black and white that a finding had been made that he had actually committed misconduct. This made it much easier for his enemies to mobilise against him.
Now that so much time has passed, I’m almost certain that some figures in the ANC knew the result of the Nicolson judgment before it was actually made public. It was probably within an hour after the judge finished that Julius Malema uttered the phrase, “Bye bye Mbeki, bye bye” to the crowd outside. He knew exactly what he was doing, and there must surely have been some manoeuvring to kick-start the momentum.
About an hour later, then ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte told me Mbeki’s future would be decided at an NEC meeting the next weekend. There are some similarities here. Gwede Mantashe has said on the question of whether Zuma has anything to answer out of the Gupta Affair, “Let’s leave that to the processes of the ANC”.
That could sound ominous for Zuma.
There is also surely some positioning going on this time around. The timing of Mcebisi Jonas’s statement is fascinating. It was done a few days before an NEC meeting that was already due to discuss the influence of the Gupta family. That means there is time for momentum to be built up. Mantashe was very quick to respond; he was quoted pretty much by all main media outlets the next morning, which means he wanted to be heard. It also means he had advance warning that this was coming.
To look at this question more closely, it would seem likely that Jonas actually did tell Mantashe of the Guptas’ approach back in December. Which means that Mantashe may also have known Zuma was going to fire Nhlanhla Nene. Which in turn means that the reaction within the ANC may not have been as spontaneous as we first thought.
And of course, one can’t ignore the role of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan here. He is the man who surely has the most to gain from all of this. It would seem impossible for Zuma, or the Hawks, to move against him in any meaningful way now.
All of that said, there are huge structural differences between the position of Mbeki in 2008 and the position of Zuma in 2016. Mbeki was no longer the leader of the ANC. Zuma is the leader of the ANC. Which means that if he is recalled as president of South Africa, will he then, and when, also removed from the position of ANC leader?
There is another big difference, in that there was no ANC leadership question still to be settled in 2008. Polokwane had settled that Zuma was the leader. To recall Zuma now would surely have an impact on the party’s leadership election scheduled for next year. This complicates matters hugely. Who could play the role of caretaker president, for example? Or would the Premier League and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma really stand back and just let Cyril Ramaphosa take the crown at this early stage, knowing they would never be able to regain it? That feels unlikely.
The timing of elections matters too. In 2008, there was enough time for Cope to split from the ANC, and then take a million votes from the party (those votes have now probably gone to the DA, and possibly the EFF).
But this time the situation is different. Local government elections are just around the corner in electoral terms, and it’s unlikely anyone would be able to organise themselves that quickly, were there to be any splinter. And the nature of municipal polls would make it that much harder to make any impact at all.
That could add to the argument in favour of a recall, especially if the Gauteng ANC argues that it is the figure (and the face on the poster) of Zuma that is going to turn off the voters it needs to retain the powerhouses of Johannesburg and Tshwane.
But in the final analysis, we may find that the current emotion is slightly overdone. There is still a court judgment to come – the Constitutional Court is currently sitting with the Nkandla matter. Zuma’s enemies may think that is worth waiting for, but that they need to start creating some momentum now.
That means their aim at the ANC’s NEC meeting this weekend may not be the slam dunk of a recall. It may actually be to put Zuma on terms, to ensure that he no longer acts in a unilateral way. It means an end to the surprise Cabinet appointments, an end to the arrogance, an insistence that all big decisions are taken after the party has been consulted.
This would force Zuma to change tack.
The Gupta family could suddenly go from financial flotation device to an iron sinker that must now be ditched.
Duduzane Zuma may move from a Porsche to a Chevy Spark.
Dudu Myeni and other Zuma allies on parastatals could start typing up their CVs.
Still, the anti-Zuma grouping would also know that it could be a grave mistake to give him time to regroup. They’re up against one of the best political operators in the game, Given a little time, who knows how he would be able to shift the flow of momentum.
There is still the chance of drastic action by the ANC this weekend. But it is surely a less than 50 percent chance. And there may well be some more time to wait, before spring is sprung. 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.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.