Zuma weakens his faction

Last year’s local government elections transformed President Jacob Zuma from a roaring lion into a lame duck. The president bore real, but only partial, responsibility for the devastating loss of key metropolitan centres. But the speed with which his space for manoeuvre has since closed down results from three egregious political miscalculations.

The first has been his decision to veto all credible candidates for the ANC’s presidential succession, in favour of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Zuma’s intention, by sending her to the AU, was to bolster her “seniority”, and to keep her out of domestic affairs in the hope that her lack of charisma — and her willingness to serve as Thabo Mbeki’s Polokwane stooge — would be forgotten. Her recent forays into campaigning have been disastrous, but Zuma has locked his camp into a “woman for president” narrative from which it cannot retreat.

The second key miscalculation was Zuma’s decision to fire then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015, and to replace him with the little-known David van Rooyen.

The ANC’s practice has been to generate a pipeline of credible technocrats for the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank, so as to avoid spooking the markets. with an unknown appointee.

By disregarding this prudent tradition Zuma was quickly and predictably forced to resurrect the man who has become his nemesis, Pravin Gordhan.

The president’s third massive miscalculation was to invite Cyril Ramaphosa to be deputy presidential candidate on his Mangaung slate. We can be sure Zuma did not intend Ramaphosa to succeed him, and it remains a fascinating question why he decided to bring the businessman into the fold.

In retrospect, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who helped Zuma to

avoid any real contest by failing to stop the brazen manipulation of delegate accreditation, may have been an influential voice in his ear. It has also been widely observed that Zuma’s challenger for the ANC presidency, Kgalema Motlanthe, was not really trying to win.

The three men — perhaps bound by their shared history in the National Union of Mineworkers and by their ambivalent but strong relationships with the South African Communist Party — may all along have been trying to secure Ramaphosa’s rise, rather than that of Motlanthe.

The Ramaphosa presidential convoy is now on a roll, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stop.

Throwing intractable challenges into the path of the deputy president — such as negotiating a minimum wage — has not slowed him down. Zuma dare not fire his deputy because Ramaphosa would then go to the branches and campaign as

a victim.

All three of Zuma’s giant miscalculations share a common feature: their consequences were entirely foreseeable. This indicates that more than mere misjudgment is at work: Zuma has been the victim of carefully prepared “sting” operations, designed to steer him into perfectly avoidable traps and controversies. Like Mbeki’s lieutenants in the pre-Polokwane period, Zuma’s allies in the security state may now have to generate financial, sexual or personal “scandals” if they are to derail Mantashe and Ramaphosa’s campaign.

Later in the year there will undoubtedly be fresh calls for radical economic transformation. However, as Mbeki found to his cost, an incumbent’s smears and diversions lack credibility in the run-up to their final elective conference. A lame-duck Zuma cannot roar; now he can only quack.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

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