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South Africa’s presidents of plots and recklessness – but now there is a chill in the air


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents are no strangers to crying ‘plot, conspiracy!’ All of the Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and now Cyril Ramaphosa presidencies have seen manifold allegations of conspiratorial threats to presidential power … and state security. And yet, the ominous consistency of the alleged plots has grown to the point of there being a chill in the political air.

The latest salvo, based on the exposés of the Maharani-Umhlanga meetings, with Zuma armed with a stack of papers as his weapon of choice, is more threatening than its predecessors. This time around it is a possible transition away from State Capture and corruption that is at stake. In the mix are also the future character of the ANC, and public policy debates currently distorted by Zuma’s self-attachment to a “radical” policy agenda. Never in this post-apartheid period have the stakes been higher.

In studying these cries of presidential plot-conspiracies, it is noticeable that apart from outliers in the early Mbeki days, Jacob Zuma has featured in all of them. There were alleged plots to prevent him from political ascendance, then allegations spear-headed by Richard Mdluli on attempts to remove Zuma from power. By now, the wheel has turned a full Zuma circle. This time around it concerns a plot, by Zuma, to use legal process to challenge and defeat Ramaphosa in a post-Nasrec Nasrec duel.

This Zuma game unfolds amid his accruing political defeat. Many (although certainly not all) previously Zuma ANC regions and some provinces have been shifting allegiances gradually to the new Ramaphosa reality (still fragile and by now post-Ramaphoria, but a reality nevertheless). The major weakness in the Ramaphosa armour – that marginal, tentative, and possibly contestable 179 majority in the Nasrec presidential outcome – is the exact pivot of Zuma’s “plot”.

This round of Zumaist challenge testifies too to how weakened Zuma has become. The state apparatuses are no longer available (at least not unambiguously) as platform for Zuma’s operations, although there is little doubt that he retains the loyalty of many moles in the corridors of often-corrupted and captured state security apparatuses.

Zuma’s weakened power base explains his turn to legal weaponry. In the recent past, Zuma still had the services of suit-clad security men to carry his stacks of files and to deliver, for example, to fellow Top Six members, intimidating them away from insisting on his pre-Nasrec resignation. The legal tools of the alleged current fightback – a legal challenge to the Nasrec process – thus give chilling indications of the current nature of Zuma power.

It shows a weakened, dangerous man. He has less access to state apparatuses to carry and bolster his campaigns to fend off threats. This is besides the facts of his lessened, albeit not eliminated provincial and regional power bases. Mpumalanga is no longer his for the taking; the ANC tides in the North West are turning (slowly but systematically) against the Zuma-Supra Mahumapelo nexus. At the Zuma court appearances there are no new additions of faces and organisations – only the known voices that have survived, so far, their Gupta roots.

Zuma is also more isolated in the media stakes – no longer do The New Age and ANN7 spread the good news of Messiah Zuma. Other Zuma-sympathetic media outlets may have become financially unsustainable as well. On the commission front, the Zondo Commission is chipping away at the previously dense Zuma edifice. The times have been changing, and Zuma’s legal option may be the only alternative left to him.

This alternative, if reported accurately, is no mean option. Given Zuma’s decline in stature and power, there is little doubt that he aims at pulling down ANC and state pillars with him. Should there be a successful legal case against the delegate statuses and hence voting outcomes of Nasrec, a court-ordered re-run of the conference is possible, if the ANC can afford it financially (in the past some provincial and regional structures have had such orders). Perhaps an outcome would confirm or even improve the balance of power for Ramaphosa, but such a conference could destabilise profoundly the ANC’s 2019 election campaign (if it happens before the election). It would hold the threat in the case of an ANC win of undoing the nation’s electoral choices soon after an election. Such possibilities could play nasty games with voter minds as they move towards Election 2019. Also, the impact on the South African economy could be severe, and would exacerbate the ingrained tension between radicalism and the threat of not being radical enough.

This possible Zuma plot is light years beyond the Mickey Mouse plots of the Mbeki era. Around 2000 it was said that South African intelligence agents had discovered evidence at the South African embassy in Washington of a plot to have Ramaphosa replace Mbeki. The ANC dismissed these. Then spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama rallied, arguing that “the ANC is as united as ever, and … allegations are the work of sinister forces trying to destabilise the organisation”. In mid-2001 then Minister of Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete, announced that Mathews Phosa (Mpumalanga premier, 1994-99), Tokyo Sexwale (first premier of Gauteng) and Cyril Ramaphosa were being investigated regarding a plot to oust Mbeki …

With tables turning on Mbeki, the Zuma camp identified an Mbeki plot to keep Zuma out of the ANC presidency (allegedly by discrediting Zuma through legal charges – charges that are sticking to this day) and from becoming the ANC’s candidate for the presidency of the country (by disgracing him and stepping in to suggest a successor).

It is telling of the changing times that in previous plots the accusations were that the plots, for example against Mbeki, were centred on state security and specifically destabilisation of the state. In contrast, in the current context of fragility of the transition from Zuma to Ramaphosa, a successful plot-challenge would destabilise the “Ramaphosa order” (albeit not the only factor destabilising it). In this 2018 plot saga there is a good chance that Zuma would gleefully throw the ANC, government, and in effect South Africa under the bus, for the sake of saving himself.

The plot tables have been turned, in no small measure. The ANC “speaking in voices”, as one radio caller designated the contradictory reactions from ANC camp-ranks this week, was the most telling description of the current state of the ANC: discordant and self-destructive, and unable to control retaliation. DM


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