29/01/2018 16:21 SAST | Updated 30/01/2018 04:37 SAST

Inside Zexit: When Zuma Is Likely To Leave... And Why

Exclusive: Presidency officials set out timeframe and planning around President Jacob Zuma's departure from office.

Graphics24/Theuns Kruger

"A quick recall of President Jacob Zuma is not going to happen at all," a senior official in the presidency told HuffPost. He requested anonymity because of a fraught political atmosphere.

He said that Zuma believed this was the consensus among the ANC's top six leaders. At the time of reporting, the subcommittee of the ANC appointed to manage the president's exit had not yet scheduled a meeting with Zuma.

The official said it was most likely that Zuma would deliver the February 8 state of the nation address (SONA), which sets the political tone for the year.

ANC president and deputy state president Cyril Ramaphosa would have preferred that Zuma did not take to the lectern, but the incumbent is determined to lead the opening of Parliament.

Zuma will deliver the state of the nation address

"We are in full drive preparing for SONA, and it our belief that the top six don't want anyone other than President Jacob Zuma to deliver it," said the official. He added that, "ideally, the president wants to stay until 2019. He opposed the removal of Thabo Mbeki. He was concerned about starting a precedent where, if an ANC president changes, then the country president changes. You can't subject the Constitution of the country to the constitution of the ANC.

Sumaya Hisham / Reuters
President Jacob Zuma during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in Cape Town, South Africa February 9, 2017.

The presidency is not expecting an easy SONA. They know Zuma will face opposition not only from opposing political parties in Parliament, but also from the party's parliamentary caucus – which is taking an activist role in the various inquiries into state capture being heard in Parliament.

Presidency officials say there is simply no time for a resignation of one president and the inauguration of another before the national address, which signals the start of the political year in February.

"You can't postpone SONA. It would be a disaster. You will have serious political problems, as the date has already been announced. The diplomatic corps and markets [would] read it as trouble."

Ramaphosa has just returned from Davos in Switzerland, while Zuma is now in Addis Ababa at the African Union summit. When Zuma returns tomorrow, he goes straight into the twice-yearly Cabinet lekgotla that sets government's priorities.

So, when will the president leave?

Presidency officials believe Zuma will leave by June, although some predict a Zexit in April or May.

"The madcaps on President Zuma's side think he will serve until 2019. You don't want to give the madcaps an inch," said the aide, adding that a date of May or June was likely.

He added: "It would be incorrect to push him or embarrass him. He will fight back. If you don't do it properly, people [could] die, it [could] spark a civil war."

Former President Thabo Mbeki called a meeting of the armed forces ahead of leaving office in 2008, and Zuma wants to do the same – as well as meet key constituencies like the diplomatic community as well as political allies. He wanted to complete important international engagements and the presidential diary needed to be cleared or transferred. It is a vast diary, said his aides.

Thabo Mbeki (L) and Jacob Zuma at the ANC conference in Polokwane, December 16, 2007.

"There's a strong push by some leaders who supported Cyril Ramaphosa for President Zuma to leave immediately. We are ready for it, and some of us have the responsibility to step up and appeal for sense.

"We have a responsibility to keep the government running. It would be a sad day if the cacophony of factional politics were to keep the delivery of services from working," said the presidency representative.

"Let's talk to the moderate forces in both camps, because there are madcaps in both camps. We don't want the same thing that happened in 2008 [when Mbeki was recalled]. In 2008, there was an almost total break of the line between Luthuli House and the Union Buildings. We must keep the line, or it becomes a broken telephone.

"The president still has constitutional powers to take decisions. He is an ANC deployee, but the Constitution says he has to make a rational decision in terms of the law, and he is under no constitutional requirement to consult. We need a structure where the president of the ANC and the president of SA meet every week."

Zuma has more political leverage to determine his own exit, says the presidency official.

"ANC president Ramaphosa is politically shrewd – this is not a post-Polokwane conference, which produced a 60:40 victory for President Zuma. Ramaphosa's win at the Nasrec conference was 50:50. This [a finely balanced polity] [could] kill the ANC. You need to balance things and get everyone into the tent. In order for that to happen, you need to manage the transition soberly. To put the ANC first, the government must operate."

A resignation and an inauguration

A presidential resignation is not like an ordinary person quitting a job, say presidency officials. The political and economic consequences are significant.

Various markets, be they economic or political, must be consulted and if necessary, placated.

In addition, diaries need rearranging and a presidential inauguration must be budgeted for and carefully planned, or it can be chaotic – like Zuma's was in 2009.

The method of a Zexit also has implications for government. If Zuma resigns amicably, then Cabinet stays in place. If Zuma is removed, then the Cabinet and deputy ministers lose their jobs with him.

Either way, Ramaphosa's team signals that they want deep changes in the executive, all of which requires synchronising and planning. In the presidency, the key concept guiding the Zexit is less speed, less haste.