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Zuma’s about-turn suggests South Africa faces another unhinged political year

President Jacob Zuma surprised South Africans by offering to pay back public money spent on his private home. Reuters/Nic Bothma

Why now? Will he really #PayBackTheMoney? How much of it will he pay back? These are some of the questions on the lips of many South Africans.

These questions come after President Jacob Zuma’s surprise announcement that he would pay back part of the R246 million of public money that was improperly spent on his private homestead at Nkandla.

Zuma’s about-turn came three days before the deadline set by the Constitutional Court for an out-of-court settlement with political opposition parties over the Nkandla furore.

His offer, after more than three years of denial, also comes at the dawn of the 2016 parliamentary calendar. There are many permutations explaining why now is the perfect time for Zuma to finally submit to the mounting pressure to #PayBackTheMoney.

  • Many people suggest he chose this moment to limit the lambasting expected from opposition parties during his upcoming State of the Nation address.

  • One could even say that his act of “benevolence” would augur well for the governing African National Congress’ (ANC) campaign in the upcoming local government elections.

  • It might be a stretch, but with a Constitutional Court case looming, he might have even had a change of heart.

The cases against Zuma were lodged by opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. They want the court to force Zuma to comply with the Public Protector’s report Secure in Comfort. They argue that the report contains enough ammunition to prove that Zuma should be held liable for the misuse of public money on his Nkandla residence.

As no settlement was reached between Zuma and the opposition parties that took him to court in a bid to force him to pay, the case against him will go ahead on February 9. This is a close call considering the State of the Nation address is only two days after the court date.

Regardless of the reason, moments such as these are sure to have lasting implications for Zuma’s administration and legacy, as well as for the ANC’s future.

Zuma no lame duck president

Zuma’s influence over South African society has shrunk ignominiously since the start of his second term in office in 2014. But his power base remains strong. Whether it is in the ANC’s National Executive Committee or his cabinet, he appears to remain invincible.

Zuma has the means and backing to weather just about any political storm at this point. He fears neither the public nor opposition parties.

He has endured saga after saga with elegant ease. Allegations of sexual assault, misogyny, corruption and nepotism have haunted his political career since before his first inauguration to the presidency in 2009.

Like water off a duck’s back, crises slide gently off him. He is resilient, a leader that has built his reputation on charisma ahead of substance and ethics. If he were the leader of an authoritarian state, he would be well placed to never have to relinquish his power.

His laughing off the growing #ZumaMustFall campaign is a testament to this.

But the timing of his announcement that he’ll pay back a portion of the Nkandla invoice arguably shows that he does fear losing a case before the country’s Constitutional Court.

Implications for the ANC

The overall consensus of the average disillusioned ANC supporter at this time is that the party will survive Zuma.

In civil society, support for Zuma has weakened considerably, but support for the former liberation movement remains strong – although it is declining. The party has taken a hard knock in the hearts and minds of many South Africans, but many expect that it will be able to reinvent itself once Zuma relinquishes his throne.

But the ANC would do well not to be nonchalant. The party is at a critical juncture. It is losing support. The outcome of the 2016 local government elections should provide a firm indicator whether the party keeps or ditches Zuma before the 2019 general elections.

Perhaps a severe electoral loss – at both this year’s municipal elections and the 2019 general elections – would jolt the ANC into realising it might have become complacent in the years Zuma has headed the party and the country.

One thing is certain: South Africans are in for yet another unhinged political year.

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