The first four days of the week of 4 February 2018 delivered a series of crises that brought South Africa to the verge of seeing Jacob Zuma’s exit. What were probably “President” Zuma’s last days were neither pretty nor unambiguous.
The triple-pronged political crisis that struck South Africa this week pulled the post-Nasrec African National Congress out of a seemingly never-ending trance of dithering about the future of the albatross president of South Africa. Despite the vacillation, the top ANC structures closed in on President Jacob Zuma; an iron-grip of opposition and parliamentary processes tightened to secure matching outcomes, and downtown hooliganism in Johannesburg gave warnings of the dark side of a continuous ambiguous transition.
First, there was a crisis of authority and power of the ANC top structures. Zuma issued the final dare in Sunday night’s meeting with the ANC’s Top Six officials: “Tell me what I did wrong to the country.”
This created a crisis in the ANC’s inner structures. The National Executive Committee (NEC) had already mandated the National Working Committee (NWC), and the NWC in turn the Top Six, to “engage” with Zuma to get him to resign voluntarily. Zuma refused – the NWC-NEC would not have the luxury of Zuma taking the presidential exit decision for them.
Zuma’s refusals came in the wake of two questions: were the smallanyana skeletons in post-Nasrec leaders’ closets holding the ANC to ransom, or were the narrow margins of victory at December’s conference a continuous problem (despite signs that Ramaphosa was strengthening his hold)? Further questions raised the thought that there might be more resistance within the ANC against the Ramaphosa victory than had been imagined. Was the post-Nasrec ANC too weak to handle Zuma and the Zumaists?
The week’s vacillation revealed, on the one hand, an ANC that dithered and appeared weak. For example, at the last moment, on the eve of the NEC meeting that would have told Zuma he was fired, the ANC seemed to waver in the name of a “dignified-no-humiliation exit” for Zuma. The meeting was postponed and Zuma reportedly stuck to preconditions.
On the other hand, the NEC-NWC-Top Six consensus grew, and with the special NEC meeting pending Zuma might have seen the light. By all indications he agreed to resign, soon, albeit with preconditions (still being negotiated, in secret, for now). By Wednesday Ramaphosa promised a “speedy resolution” in the “coming days”. Ramaphosa added “without discord and division” to the mix of ANC-side facilitation of Zuma’s departure.
The other prongs of the crisis added fuel to the pressures for Zuma to depart, urgently.
Zuma might have been able to exploit the ANC’s “no humiliation of the president” wish (a January compromise in the NEC deliberations on Zuma’s future), had the parliamentary crisis not been lurking. The opposition parties have been readying themselves for the Zuma ambush, should the Ramaphosa-ists be too weak to deal with the president who had problems accepting that his time was up.
The opposition had been firing warning shots in the form of demanding a postponement of the State of the Nation Address (SONA), originally scheduled for 8 February. They also had a motion of no confidence in the president scheduled for 22 February. In the end, Speaker Baleka Mbete took the SONA postponement step (postponed then until further notice), in the interest of avoiding “disruption, anarchy and chaos”.
Mbete did not mention the other side of the coin – that there will in all likelihood be another South African president by the time of the eventual SONA delivery, and that the ANC does not want the SONA to be muddied by the process of firing Zuma. SONA is a big occasion for the non-Zuma ANC and Zuma would not have been a suitable ambassador, even if the ANC Top Six and NWC had been prepared to tolerate this scenario up to Sunday evening.
On the parliamentary front and beyond SONA, in a motion of no confidence in the event of Zuma staying, there was a real risk of ANC MPs uniting with opposition parties to force Zuma’s exit, despite the political humiliation that such an act would entail. In such a vote, opposition parties would have gained political credibility and negated the gains that the post-Zuma ANC had started registering.
Third, the Luthuli House street crisis on the Monday of the week topped them all. The ugly scenes of thuggish behaviour and abuse in downtown Johannesburg brought reminders of the lurking destabilisation should a new ANC order not be affirmed and consolidated. The protests around ANC headquarters Luthuli House centred on the Zuma-Gupta Black Land First (BLF) offensive to retain Zuma. Others, pro-Ramaphosa, mobilised as #DefendLuthuliHouse and proved that the ANC is equal to the BLF when it comes to hooliganism.
Divisions in the ANC were displayed vividly as ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule received the BLF petition but was booed by others in the ANC crowd. Unlike previous occasions of #ZumaMustFall mobilisation at Luthuli House, Zuma’s support this time around was not coming from ANC structures. Power was slipping away from Zuma. The NWC meeting that was unfolding inside Luthuli House at the same time had to take note.
It was this meeting that issued the decision that the ANC would convene an NEC meeting (discussed above) for the eve of SONA, Wednesday 7 February 2018. Zuma’s fate was expected to be sealed. Had Zuma agreed on Sunday evening to resign and exit in as dignified a way as is possible for a president of disrepute, the ANC would probably have allowed him to deliver the SONA and exit in a phased way thereafter. Once that moment had passed, however, the NEC was going to bring down the JZ presidency and Zuma’s SONA appearance. It was at this point that Zuma baulked and offered to negotiate.
No renewal-driven ANC can survive such events if its leadership does not intervene credibly. The week’s developments demanded definitive leadership … and the crisis-inspired turnaround that unfolded signalled that the ascendant Ramaphosa ANC had possibly found the resolve to banish Zuma, albeit in softly-softly style.
In this week, power shifted a few additional, significant, centimetres. The next few days will reveal whether it had been enough to tip the scales; and the following months whether Zuma was down and out, or back for revenge. DM
Susan Booysen is a political analyst, professor at Wits University and author of books on the ANC, so far The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power, and Dominance and Decline: the ANC in the Time of Zuma. She also consults on policy and governance, and mentors emerging scholars.
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