30/03/2017 10:50 SAST | Updated 30/03/2017 12:41 SAST

'Containing Zuma' Is An Epic Disaster

Zuma's opponents need to work up an appetite for battle.


When President Jacob Zuma fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene shortly after 17:00 on Wednesday December 9, 2015, there was disbelief on the sixth floor of Luthuli House.

When the Constitutional Court delivered judgment a few months later on the Nkandla matter, there was embarrassment.

When the Public Protector later revealed the Gupta family to be a parasite on the back of their proximity to Zuma, there was anger.

And when the African National Congress (ANC) in August last year returned their worst electoral result since the heady days of our first democratic election in 1994, there was fear.

The common thread through these calamitous and dramatic political shifts has been Zuma, the leader championed by a motley crew of divergent political, ideological and economic interests at Polokwane in 2007.

When Zuma told Zweli Mkhize, the ANC's treasurer general, of his decision to replace Nene with the unknown Des van Rooyen, Mkhize replied that the leadership did not agree with him that the finance minister needed replacing, but that his presidential prerogative was respected. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was apparently angry, and Jessie Duarte, who boarded a flight from Durban to Johannesburg just after the announcement was made, was allegedly livid.

What followed was an epic disaster, with billions of rands wiped off pension funds, investor confidence plummeting and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange nosediving. Before Pravin Gordhan was hastily recalled to National Treasury after Zuma's decision however, a gargantuan mobilisation effort took place between Ramaphosa, Mkhize, a select few leaders from big business and civil society.

On the fourth day after Nene's sacking (and after Van Rooyen rocked up at Treasury, with Gupta acolytes in tow, demanding documents relating to South African Airways) Zuma was asked to return to Johannesburg from a visit to Mpumalanga. The business leaders told Zuma — in no uncertain terms — what would happen once the financial markets opened in Tokyo the following morning. And by all accounts the politicians — allegedly led by Ramaphosa — said there would be a Cabinet revolt if he didn't listen to reason.

ANC insiders then forwarded a theory that Gwede Mantashe and Ramaphosa would be tasked to "contain" and "manage" Zuma to prevent something like that repeating itself. The argument was that there was full realisation in the upper echelons of the party that Zuma, beholden to interests other than those of the public, could cause major damage before his term as party leader expires in December 2017.

This "containment policy" was reinforced by the Nkandla judgment, the election results and the investigation into state capture. Zuma, it was said, has too many "moving parts" to be left to his own devices.

His newest assault on Treasury however is a clear indictiment on Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize's failed efforts to manage their leader. They have crashed and burned — and even though the sacking of Gordhan has not yet happened, there is every chance that Zuma still might pull the trigger.

His power might be fraying at the edges, but make no mistake — Msholozi is still the strongest bull in the kraal.

From every objective angle Zuma had a disastrous year between December 2015 and December 2016. Given on what basis the ANC famously "recalled" then President Thabo Mbeki from the Union Buildings (a court judgment, eventually overturned on appeal), Zuma should have been cooling his heels in Nkandla long before the first election poster was printed.

Ramaphosa was the ringleader in convincing Zuma his Nene call must be undone. Mantashe is no Zuma fan and, by virtue of his position, carries enormous influence. But they hesitated. They did not move on Zuma.

"When you want to fell the king," Ramaphosa's people said then, "you must make sure you take off his head. We're not sure we can."

The more time elapsed after Nene's dismissal, the stronger Zuma became. His networks of patronage and power were galvanised and the "premier league" realised their lynchpin needed to be protected. The terrain of battle also moved from state to party — and in the murky world of internal ANC politics Zuma is a feared opponent.

There seems to be a standoff in the party's leadership. Zuma is determined to rid himself of the stoic Gordhan and his sidekick, Mcebisi Jonas, and the ANC's leadership have seemingly acquiesced to that demand, meekly countering that the Guptas' Brian Molefe is unacceptable.

In every way, shape or form, if Gordhan is removed, it will emphasise the absolute power Zuma has over the party, its leadership and the state. The party bows down to him, its leadership — despite the soaring rhetoric and powerful oratory at the Kathrada funeral — cowers in his presence and he has total control over the levers of state.

Even if there is a decision by the national executive committee — which last year rejected any attempt to discuss his future — to recall Zuma, there is no guarantee that he will obey it. There is after all a (nominal) separation between party and state.

Party insiders with access to Ramaphosa say "the DP is very aware" of events and their repercussions and that "he is working in the background".

Zuma is the ultimate survivor. He has weathered the political storm of 2015-16, he is seeking to install his chosen successor at the ANC's conference in December and his network depends on his stewardship of the state.

He has the stomach for battle. His opponents need to work up an appetite.

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