NEWS

Zuma Is Under Siege, But He Won't Go Quietly

Zuma finally spoke out about his Cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday afternoon, but analysts say he is either out of touch or doesn't care about public reaction.

05/04/2017 06:01 SAST | Updated 05/04/2017 12:07 SAST

After a week of turmoil, in which he not only fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan, but during which the country's investment grade was downgraded to junk status, President Jacob Zuma finally broke his silence.

During the launch of the trans-Africa locomotive on Tuesday, Zuma finally spoke about the events which have rocked the country.

But analysts say Zuma was being typically and deliberately obtuse, and that he knows full well that his speech was a non-event.

Zuma said: "In the past week I made changes to the national executive. We expect the changes to add renewed energy into Cabinet and the executive as a whole. We are proud of having added many young Ministers which is an investment into the future of government leadership.

"If we do not enable our young MPs to gain experience now, we may battle in future with leadership and governance experience within the national executive. We congratulate all new appointees once again. With regards to the Finance portfolio, we reiterate that while the political leadership has changed, government's overall policy orientation remains the same as derived from the governing party, the African National Congress."

Economist Dawie Roodt said Zuma's remarks would barely have registered on the radar of the markets. He said far from what one would expect, the markets expect so little of Zuma that nothing he says can impact the current state of affairs, from a market standpoint.

"He's irrelevant to a large extent. There's a saying in boxing -- if you hit someone very hard he will smile at you. That's Zuma feeling the punches. He's played his last card. This is the end game. The markets are not looking to him for reassurance. He's got no capital anymore. He's a spent force. You simply do not trust a guy that's gone as far as he has," he said.

'Ready for a backlash'

Even if Zuma's intention had been to calm the markets, he did not even mention the ratings downgrade.

His somewhat sunny outlook on the removal of Gordhan is typical Zuma, said analyst Ralph Mathekga.

"If he declares this a crisis, that will amount to an acknowledgment that he is the source of this crime," he said.

Mathekga pointed out that Zuma's real talent was to know what was going on around him, and so his silence was not out of ignorance. Instead, his allies, specifically in the ANCYL and ANCWL had been speaking negatively about the ratings agencies, "ready for a backlash.".

"He is the kind of leader that, when expected to speak he will not, or he will talk about something completely irrelevant. His strategy is to pretend it is business as usual. He does it deliberately. It doesn't mean he's thinking about what's going on, it doesn't mean he's not strategizing."

Out of touch with national sentiment

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said that in the aftermath of the 2015 firing of Nhlanhla Nene, Zuma repeatedly asserted that he was forced to hire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister to replace Nene's short-lived replacement, Des Van Rooyen. He did so on a number of occasions, he said, and this shows that Zuma has been ready to fire Gordhan for a long time.

"I suspect the problem is that he could never find the right time to do it. Now, he didn't find the right time. He just felt the right time would never come."

In his responses, Matshiqi says it is very clear that either Zuma is out of touch with the national sentiment or he does not care about it.

"He is definitely out of touch with the fact that we have passed the stage where the political environment inside and outside the ANC are aligned. When he responds in this detached fashion about what is a deepening political and economic crisis, either he does not care or he is out of touch."

Matshiqi puts this down to a sense of alienation, ironically, much like the last days of President Thabo Mbeki's presidency.

"The Zuma decade has been a decade of scandals and this has caused a sense of alienation to develop between him and citizens. He is the embodiment of the alienation between those who govern and those who are governed. He retreats to those who support him. Even so, he is fully aware that levels of antipathy towards him and so he suffers a crisis of isolation. Like his predecessor who retreated to the state [Mbeki], Zuma is also suffering a sense of isolation. The question is, where will he retreat to?"

Roodt says Zuma's silence also shows that he is weakened.

"We're all just waiting for something to happen. Maybe the vote of no confidence [debate in Parliament] will be the defining moment," he said.

Matshiqi agrees, and says Zuma knows he is weaker now than when he fired Nene in 2015.

"He displays symptoms of someone who is suffering a siege mentality. The problem is he will not retreat quietly."