Zuma knows where, figuratively at least, all the bodies are buried and who has been caught in the web of intelligence networks he controls

For those of us who grew up under the unlamented apartheid regime, racial repression was lashed onto dour Calvinism.

This meant that everything from cinemas on Sunday to television (until 1976, at least) were banned on the anti-pleasure principle that marked a key aspect of the governing philosophy.

Back then, with the notable exception of horse racing, all forms of gambling and betting were banned.

Today, of course, you can bet on just about everything, from the winner of last week’s US Masters and, alas, even on Ernie Els’s record-breaking bad putts.
But political betting in South Africa is far less evolved than it is in the US and the UK, for example.

For the long-distance epic race to the White House in both major parties in America, you can wager on an almost infinite number of outcomes, and not just on who will win the ultimate prize, the US presidency, in November.
One of the most sophisticated of the online betting shops, Betfair, allows punters to either back someone to win or to “lay” an assumption that someone else will not. It then pools the bets and provides a market-derived percentage of the likelihood of the outcome happening, or not.

Unlike most gaming outfits, with Betfair the market, not the bookie, determines the odds. So it’s quite a useful guide to see precisely where the smart (or, given the odds, perhaps the stupid) money sits.

In a pretty terrible week for him but perhaps not for the world, Republican front runner Donald Trump lost Wisconsin and added women en masse to the constituencies he has already offended. Betfair accordingly informed punters that its customers (some 800000 in all) “are fast losing faith in Trump”. He has drifted from a 71% rating to win his party convention down to 50%, while his nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, went up to 26%, more than double his previous betting market share.

The big prediction by the online gamblers is that the party convention will be a contest with an unknown outcome and not the usual coronation. On this likelihood, the bets suggest an 80% probability.

In the general election, Democrat Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive favourite.

Back in March, a local betting outfit, Sportingbet, offered very unfavourable odds for the punter and much better ones for Nkandla’s favourite son that Zuma would make it all the way to the end of his term. If you can’t stand the idea of living under the president until 30 April 2019, you can bet against him and get even money. But the bet favours the president going the full distance at odds of 8-11.

Of course, that was before the Constitutional Court judgment and the gathering forces of grandees from the ruling party who now speak against his continuance on an almost daily basis.

Freedom Day, in two weeks’ time, promises mass gatherings of rolling protests.

It is probable that the much maligned white community, oft criticised for preferring braais to public holiday commemorations, will break habit and be among the throngs.

The Sportingbet website offers no update on the odds of Zuma being forced from office, so like the ancient Romans one needs to read the auguries to determine the prospects.

At one level, you might bet on Newton’s first law of physics – an object stays at rest “unless acted upon by an unbalanced force”. Or simply put, gravity pulls you down eventually.

Reasonably, the punter or pundit might inquire for how much longer and at what cost – for his party, country and even now the Guptas (who, having bet long and hard on Zuma, are now appearing to be laying bets to distance themselves) – can the “presidential object” stay put?

On the other hand, I had a recent encounter with a person close to the presidency who advises “don’t bet against Zuma”.

His reasoning: Zuma knows where, figuratively at least, all the bodies are buried and who has been caught in the web of intelligence networks he controls. He is, my friend reminds me, the “master strategist”.

So perhaps then – in stock market terms – go long, not short on Zuma stock. I don’t buy this analysis but it is worth recording it. And it would definitely be worth betting against a long-term stay should the ANC lose another major metro to the opposition in the August municipal elections.

For while inertia, intelligence-gathering, self-enrichment and all the other factors cite suggest long odds on an early Zuma departure, no political party bets against itself over time. Least of all when the real money in the Treasury, as opposed to the pocket amounts required for a betting flutter, runs out. And this will happen if there is a credit rating agency downgrade of the country to junk status.

Even before then, if Zuma’s legendary charm, his mass imbizos and the use of state resources and much else besides don’t stop a terrible local government result for the ruling party, even the loyalists will turn.
Because if Newton’s law of physics applies to the whole universe, including the micro-world or the bubble which politicians inhabit, then another iron-clad law of politics also comes into the frame. It’s called the “rule of political self-preservation”.

Forget high minded idealism, inside every politician you will find a silent member of this club.

Remember Margaret Thatcher? She won an unprecedented three terms in office; many of her MPs only got elected on her coat-tails. But on a fateful day in November 1990 she was removed from her leadership by the same MPs who feared her continuance in office was now more liability than asset.

Of course, those MPs had a freedom of action denied to their South African counterparts who owe their election to the party bosses.

The National Party , providers of both race politics and joyless Calvinism also elevated leader-worship to a political art form. But even their strong man, PW Botha, whose ferocious powers over his flock led to his nickname “Groot Krokodil” (big crocodile) was eventually forced from office by his own cabinet.

So, while the ruling ANC gambles on our future as much as its own, it might be worth taking a bet on a likely outcome. Depending on which odds you can get for which result.

This article first appeared in The Times