Key actors do not want president to go just yet
THE Constitutional Court’s argument that President Jacob Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution” remains compelling, notwithstanding some creative African National Congress (ANC) obfuscation this week. By allowing himself to be unlawfully enriched, Zuma acted in clear breach of his constitutional obligations. Nevertheless, it would not suit key actors if the president were to leave office before the local elections, scheduled for August 3.
For opposition parties, Zuma is a gift that keeps on giving. An alliance of convenience between the Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters, United Democratic Movement and Congress of the People was signalled when party leaders stood shoulder to shoulder outside Parliament on Tuesday. They know the metropolitan municipalities up for grabs in August are powerful sites of power and patronage, and present priceless opportunities to demonstrate a capacity to govern. If Zuma leaves office before August, their prospects of seizing Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay might well be dashed.
As for Zuma, he is now under close observation, and cannot easily meet his obligations to his allies and benefactors. The contenders for the succession cannot protect him from prosecution. It is little wonder that he is determined to stay put, shielded for now by control of the state intelligence and criminal justice machines, and by dominance of the national executive committee of the ANC.
An early departure by Zuma would also create substantial difficulties for some of the rivals for power within the liberation movement. The turkeys of the premier league are not going to vote for an early Christmas. The campaign of his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, would also struggle to get off the ground if the president took early retirement too soon.
Observers, meanwhile, have been baffled by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s defence of the president. Mantashe presumably calculates that if Zuma steps down early, there would be insufficient support in the national executive committee for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s deployment to the presidency.
Treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize would be the most likely beneficiary, or a temporary stand-in, such as planning minister Jeff Radebe, could hold the fort until the ANC’s 2017 elective conference. Either way, the Ramaphosa campaign’s momentum would be lost.
The local elections further complicate calculations. Where the ANC faces defeats, in the Cape provinces and Gauteng, disaffection with Zuma has long been evident. Afrobarometer reported last year that fewer than a quarter of citizens in Gauteng approved of his performance.
If Zuma is blamed for the loss of major municipalities in August, marginal provinces may swing decisively against him — and his preferred successors — in the 2019 national and provincial elections. Elsewhere, however, Zuma remains an electoral asset, enjoying strong support in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and other rural areas. Only a third of rural voters told Afrobarometer they believe there is corruption in the Presidency, compared to more than half of urban respondents.
Would a putsch to remove Zuma now “tear the ANC apart”, as Mantashe suggests? The claim might seem fanciful. The ANC, however, now confronts deep divides: Zuma has polarised the movement by region and by ethnicity, and his alliances with the premier league and an unpatriotic bourgeoisie have exacerbated class divisions. Mantashe is right that the ANC cannot resolve its succession conundrums right now.
But, given a relentlessly deteriorating economic and political environment, there is little reason to believe that prospects for an amicable transfer of power will be any better in 2017.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town