By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Jacob Zuma, the embattled South African president, would deliver a State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 9 February. It would be his last as leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). That is, if all goes according to plan. To escape prosecution, President Zuma is desirous of a third term, insists Julius Malema, his unrelenting antagonist and “commander-in-chief” of ultra-nationalist opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. Although South Africa’s constitution sets a maximum of two five-year terms for the presidency, the ANC has no such limits. Still, should Mr Zuma choose to contest again for the leadership of his party, it would be highly unprecedented. But there was once talk about amending the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits. In response, Mr Zuma defended the status quo, but did not categorically rule out the possibility. “We are very clear about the two terms,” Bloomberg reports him as saying in October 2015. [But] “countries move the way they want…there are countries recently that have gone to a referendum, the people have said: ‘we still want this man, we think this man is still useful.’ Its a democratic decision that is taken.” Mr Zuma added. So one would be remiss to simply dismiss Mr Malema’s assertions as figments of his rather fertile imagination. And Mr Malema’s intelligence proved solid in the past. But considering how divisive Mr Zuma has been, it is somewhat odd that there could even be the slightest contemplation of his staying on from any quarter; albeit he may not entirely mind being tapped to “unite the party”, in light of currently sharp divisions – engineered by him no less, some would argue – within the ANC. But even for someone with Mr Zuma’s capacity for intrigue, such a scheme would literally require him to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Thankfully, it is an unlikely scenario.
An imminent cabinet reshuffle may be about. Pundits suggest one would only take place, if at all, after the SONA. To position his ex-wife and outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (tenure ends in April) for the ruling party’s presidency and who he has unabashedly thrown his weight behind, Mr Zuma would almost certainly appoint her to his cabinet it is believed. Already a formidable match for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – who Mr Zuma clearly does not want to take his place – in her own right and having already secured the support of the influential youth and women’s leagues of the ANC, Ms Dlamini-Zuma would be almost assured of the much sought after prize consequently.
There are practical reasons why Mr Zuma may be averse to the candidacy of Mr Ramaphosa – who already has the support of key labour unions and so-called “white monopolist capital”. That is, even as he likely blames his deputy for some of his troubles. Never mind that Mr Zuma has proved to be his own worst enemy most of the time. More relevant though is that should Mr Ramaphosa clinch victory, he would necessarily move quickly to put his own allies in control of the party’s structures. Subsequently, especially with myriad corruption cases around his neck, it is not unlikely that Mr Zuma could be pressured to leave office before the end of his term in 2019. So, although the sun may have begun to set on Mr Zuma’s presidency, arguably the most tumultuous in post-apartheid South Africa thus far, he probably faces his biggest fight yet.
But who would Mr Zuma remove to let in Ms Dlamini-Zuma? Many suggest it could be Pravin Gordhan, his longsuffering finance minister. But how to do so without causing the kind of market disruptions that visited his abrupt firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015 is the question Mr Zuma likely ponders. He could certainly resort to the same tactic he deployed in easing Mr Gordhan out of the treasury the last time he was at the helm: re-assign him to a less glamorous ministry. Even so, it may still be too risky for Ms Dlamini-Zuma to take his place afterwards. What if ratings agencies finally decide to downgrade South Africa to junk status just then, say? Not that ANC cadres give a hoot about such things. Still, why take the risk? Brian Molefe, the disgraced former Eskom (state-owned power utility) boss, whose credentials are otherwise distinguished, has been suggested as a probable candidate instead. After all, to quote that English writer John Bunyan, he that is down needs fear no fall.
Race not for hares
A factionalised ANC may be just ideal for the one or two grandees patiently waiting in the wings. Ms Dlamini-Zuma and Mr Ramaphosa may prove to be overly divisive. In their stead, Kgalema Motlanthe, who was briefly head of state between 2008-09, has been tipped as a potential consensus candidate. Party treasurer, Zweli Mkhize, is another viable alternative it is mused. And there have been grumblings from some of the ANC’s amazons. If indeed their time has come, why not have a proper contest amongst the many distinguished female party cadres, they argue. What about National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete? And defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula? Is Lindiwe Sisulu, the human settlements minister, also not qualified? The hares have had a good start no doubt. But perhaps it is time to open up the field. Still, the tortoise must not be Mr Zuma.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/zumas-long-goodbye/