The last few months of Jacob Zuma’s rule as president of the governing African National Congress are proving tumultuous. Cabinet culling and reshuffles, their connections to private business interests, and tensions around large contracts such as the nuclear deal and the distribution of social grants are all heating up.
At the same time normal rules of polite engagement within the ANC have evaporated. Emotional intelligence has gone by the board. For the first time, newly appointed ministers were not summoned to the presidential residence. They were told of their appointments by phone. The dismissed ministers fared even worse. Even senior cabinet ministers didn’t merit a call but learnt of their dismissal from the media.
Zuma’s actions suggest he considers his position within the ANC stronger than it was in December 2015 when he backed down over Nenegate to dismiss, within days, the man he’d appointed as finance minister. This time he’s not backing down over new finance minister Malusi Gigaba.
But how strong is his position really?
Some of the most recent backlash against Zuma and demands for his resignation go wider and deeper than before. When funerals turn into political rallies – think ANC stalwarts and liberation struggle heroes Makhenkesi Stofile and Ahmed Kathrada) – it’s a surefire sign of rebellion on the march.
Zuma is now left with a shrinking core of hardline supporters within the ANC. Given his uncanny ability to outvote, outflank, and outmanoeuvre his opponents and rivals, it’s quite possible that he will retain his position as president of the ANC until his terms ends in December. He might even hold onto the job as president of the country which would, under normal circumstances, end after a general election scheduled for 2019.
Discontent on the rise
Zuma was swept into power in 2007 by a coalition led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Now both have called on him to resign. The SACP explicitly denounced the fact that:
Increasingly our country is being ruled not from the Union Buildings, but from the Gupta family compound.
And for the first time senior members of the ANC also came out publicly to voice their displeasure. The second ranking ANC executive, Cyril Ramaphosa, also deputy president of the country, stuck his head above the parapet and said in a widely broadcast speech that he disagreed with Zuma’s dismissal of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.
The third highest ranking ANC officer, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe also said in public:
We can’t be happy because we think the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, was a hard worker. The process made me a little jittery and uncomfortable, our views on that list counted for nought.
In short, they were informed, not consulted.
Mantashe also commented:
We were given a list that was complete - in my view, the list has been developed somewhere else; was given to us to legitimise it.
Everyone will infer he meant the Gupta brothers handed the list to Zuma. The Guptas stand accused of having captured the South African government.
The fourth highest ranking ANC officer, Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize also opposed Gordhan’s dismissal.
Even after this groundswell of opposition, Zuma was still able to rally the majority of members of the ANC’s National Working Committee, which carries out decisions of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), behind him against efforts to have him removed. The NEC is the party’s highest governing body between congresses.
Those who had spoken out against him were forced to retract and eat humble pie, while the integrity commission’s report was withdrawn.
What this shows is that Zuma loyalists still outnumber his opponents in national ANC structures.
The Treasury and tenders
Both the commentariat and the market assume that Zuma replaced Gordhan with Gigaba in the expectation that he would be more pliant to demands by the Guptas and Zuma over tenders. Among Gordhan’s most recent steps was to centralise the issuing of tenders in the National Treasury. This of course raises the stakes for grabbing the department and appointing new, pliant, tender officers.
A number of other cabinet appointments also suggest that Zuma has his sights set on benefiting from big tenders and contracts. For example, the presumption is that the former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersen – a Zuma loyalist – was fired because she failed to make sufficient progress in signing a proposed nuclear power deal with the Russians.
This presumption is strengthened by the fact that Zuma has removed the nuclear build programme from the Department of Energy, and placed it under Eskom, which has a number of people closely connected to the Guptas on its board.
Who wasn’t fired in the cabinet reshuffle is also telling. Zuma didn’t remove the Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini who is accused of incompetence in handling a contract for the distribution of social grants. She heads the ANC Women’s League which remains firmly in Zuma’s camp.
But ministers are seldom removed from their positions for incompetence – in South Africa as well as elsewhere in the world. Competence is, at most, a secondary criterion for their appointments – they’re normally given posts because they lead important factions or are key supporters of the head of state.
Echoes of Mbeki recall
What of the media? There’s widespread opposition to Zuma in the press and electronic media with the exception of the Gupta-owned ANN7 and The New Age. But this may not amount to much. The views of the media have been at odds with outcomes before. The media opposed the recall of Mbeki in 2008 but the ANC got rid of him anyway.
One key metric to watch is the rate at which former Zuma supporters now sit on the fence – or come off it – over the next nine months. The alliance partners are already gone and the ANC’s most numerous and hence most powerful province, KwaZulu-Natal, is split.
At this stage the ANC’s Women’s League, its weakened Youth League the “Premier League”, and one faction of veterans of the ANC’s former military wing, umKhonto we Sizwe, remain the shrinking core of Zuma hardliners. And of course, the Gupta family and associates.
This may be just enough to keep him going until December. Opponents who wish to remove him will have to organise a coalition on the scale of the one which swept Mbeki out of power.