Ministers’ call for Zuma to resign signals internal rebellion in South Africa’s cabinet

The ANC got rid of one president , Thabo Mbeki (right) in 2008. The groundswell against incumbent Jacob Zuma is growing. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The call led by South Africa’s tourism minister Derek Hanekom at the meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) for President Jacob Zuma’s resignation resembles the call for former president Thabo Mbeki’s resignation – also by the NEC which runs the party between its five-yearly party conferences – in 2008.

It differs, however, in important respects. Mbeki was no longer the president of the ANC at the time as Zuma had already been elected as his successor, while Zuma is the president of the ANC and his successor is not yet known.

The post-Mbeki dispensation was therefore much more predictable. This is an important consideration when taking a position in the Zuma debate.

Much of the current dynamics – directed by the leaders of three provinces known as the Premier League, the ANC’s Youth League and Women’s League, as well as the MK Veterans’ Association – are about securing a successor within Zuma’s sphere of influence. Securing the patronage network for the post-Zuma era is arguably another important motivation for these dynamics.

The immediate significance of the latest move against Zuma is that it publicly exposed the fault lines in the NEC. The fact that the meeting lasted for three days instead of the scheduled two days, is an indication of the intensity of the discussion, its divisive nature and the fact that Zuma could not quickly take control of it.

Once the bastion of support for Zuma in the ANC, the NEC is now a divided constituency. Moreover, cabinet has effectively also become divided. According to media reports, as many as six cabinet ministers supported Zuma’s resignation.

For Zuma this means that he can no longer rely on the two real centres of power that can determine his future – the NEC in the ANC and cabinet in government.

A president under pressure

Zuma has been in a constant state of crisis management since late 2015. He had to make serious concessions to the student #FeesMustFall movement, comply with the Constitutional Court’s judgment on Nkandla and fend off an impeachment motion in Parliament. This, after the Constitutional Court ruled that he acted illegally and not consistent with the constitution.

Zuma has also lost the public relations battle against the National Treasury and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. He has come under even greater pressure following the former Public Protector’s “State of Capture” report.

In the process he lost staunch supporters in the state-owned enterprises and criminal justice system, such as Brian Molefe, CEO of power utility Eskom and Nomgcobo Jiba, deputy head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Molefe resigned after he was implicated in the state capture report. Jiba was declared “not fit and proper” by the High Court and struck off the roll of advocates.

Other Zuma acolytes under pressure include NPA head Shaun Abrahams, the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng, head of the Hawks elite crime-fighting unit, General Berning Ntlemeza. The politically connected business family and Zuma’s close friends, the Guptas, find themselves at the heart of state capture allegations. They are now fighting for survival.

Implications for the state and governance

The NEC meeting clearly exposed how the ANC’s factionalism has spilled over into government. This is likely to paralyse governance even further. Policy implementation and interdepartmental cooperation will grind to a halt as ministers and senior officials become increasingly preoccupied with securing their own careers.

This trajectory is not new. But Hanekom’s proposal has given it a public face.

The latest developments are in essence an internal rebellion in the cabinet. Up until now most of the fault lines in the ANC have only been visible within the party. Contestation around Zuma has been evident in the provinces, within the ANC leagues and in the party’s alliance partners – the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions. But now cabinet is also directly involved.

Cabinets anywhere in the world depend on a relationship of mutual trust between the president (or prime minister) and their ministers. The fact that at least six ministers have openly defied Zuma’s authority as head of government means that their relationship of trust no longer exists.

Another indicator of the trust deficit in cabinet has been the ongoing power struggle between Gordhan and Zuma for control over the public sector financial management. Gordhan is supported by several ministers and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It would be unrealistic to expect quality government by such a divided executive.

Broader political implications

The ANC’s latest predicament has several longer term implications. The most immediate is that it clearly demonstrates Zuma’s ability to survive almost any challenge. By now the most realistic scenario is that he will only vacate his office as ANC president in December 2017 – the date at which his present term expires. In the meantime, more controversies, scandals and concomitant political uncertainties, can be expected in 2017.

The latest events effectively open the door to the leadership succession debate in the ANC. In line with this, the country can expect the use of almost any means, including state institutions like the Hawks and NPA, during the contest.

The resultant deeper divisions in the ANC will predictably leave a “scorched earth” for the successor. Zuma’s successor will not have enough time to salvage the situation by the time of the next general election due in the first half of 2019.

The current developments also signal the end of the governing tripartite alliance. The South African Communist Party has already published a discussion document to go it alone in 2019. The Congress of South African Trade Unions is becoming more divided and weakened every day. It is reported to have lost more than 300 000 members.

An unintended consequence of the ANC predicament is a pragmatic rapprochement between the opposition Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighter. They are already cooperating in the country’s two biggest metropoles – Johannesburg and Tshwane – where they wrested power from the ANC after the recent local government elections. Coalition politics at provincial and national are likely to follow.

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