President’s enemies in the ANC probably decided not to hand opposition parties the gift of an indebted leader

Like pupils at a Montessori School, all the dramatis personae in last week’s long-running parliamentary no-confidence saga — the eighth such motion to date in an eight-year presidency — against Jacob Zuma could award themselves a gold star. And they duly did so.

Acting from a known Constitutional Court judgment and unknown political calculations, Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete surprised both her supporters and detractors, as well as the weight of conventional wisdom, by allowing a secret ballot on the motion.

Emboldened by their anonymity, and presumably unburdened by fear of reprisal or expulsion, anywhere between 30 and 40 ANC MPs broke ranks to vote against their president and the party whip or washed their hands of both sides and abstained.

Barely had the vote count been announced than all sides claimed victory. And here the runes had, for once, a fairly obvious meaning, or several of them: for the Zuma camp, they retained the backing of 80% of ANC members in the face of unprecedented pressure and unparalleled public exposure of the sky-high cost of his presidency in looted assets, embedded corruption, unemployment numbers and an international investor strike that mimics or exceeds the nadir of PW Botha’s presidency.

For the anti-Zuma forces in the parliamentary opposition, civil society and within the ANC, exactly the same calculus from reading the same numbers yielded the largest governing party support for an opposition motion, the effect of which should have been to force out the president and his Cabinet.

For the ever-swelling ranks of a broad swathe of civil society — from organised business and trade unions to just plain fed-up citizens — the power of protest had both been affirmed and disappointed.

On the one hand, their venting had found an echo in one quite large corner of the governing party. And on the other, they had failed again to remove the most unpopular and least qualified president in office in nearly a quarter-century of our democratic experiment.

But it remains bewilderingly unclear precisely how to interpret last week’s parliamentary melodrama as a portent for the December showdown when the ANC goes about choosing its next president.

I am advised that Zuma’s most implacable internal enemies number far more than the dissenting MPs who voted with the opposition. Among their ranks are those deeply discomfited by the idea that the toppling of Zuma would, last week, only have been achieved with a combination of majority opposition and minority ANC support. This would have meant the interim state president would have been beholden to the opposition and would, in the world of perceptions and as a taint on their legitimacy, have been installed courtesy of the party’s deadliest enemies.

Rather, this school of thought within the ANC contends, “await December and let’s then have a clean sweep”. The problem with this calculation is, of course, what happens over the next four months.

It is easy to paint Zuma as the political equivalent of a zombie, neither alive nor dead but hovering in the twilight: shorn of legitimacy, the puncture point of the swelling ANC disunity and the butt of every protest, and the gift that keeps on giving and uniting the opposition.

And while there is now disunity in combined opposition ranks over the DA’s hasty call to dissolve Parliament, one of the less noted features of last week’s vote — which required only 10 more ANC MPs to change sides to change the outcome — was the price tag that would have attached to its success.

Zuma’s ousting via a parliamentary process would have led to a forced leadership change and would have removed the opposition’s silver fox. Nothing unites the land-grabbing EFF, the property-protecting DA, the Transkei-led United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Christian fundamentalists in the African Christian Democratic Party and the Taalvegters in the Freedom Front Plus more than antipathy towards Zuma and his predations in office. Beyond that, as the internal ructions between the DA and UDM in Port Elizabeth suggest, unity is far more elusive.

In 1947, when Labour was first in office in Britain, its maladroit chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Dalton, was a rallying point for the defenestrated Conservatives. When he was forced from office after inadvertently leaking his own budget, Tory MP Nigel Birch proclaimed, “My God! They’ve shot our fox!”

The majority of the ANC declined, this time and to the secret relief of the opposition leadership, to shoot their fox outright, but did severely wound him.

Famously, the fox according to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus “knows many things, the hedgehog one big one”. In that sense, Zuma and his followers are far more hedgehog than fox. Despite his high office, amassed wealth and sweeping powers, he plays the wounded victim — although now the adjective if not the noun has some salience. The only add-on — inspired from London — has been the race baiting.

Perhaps no one person better captured this sense of misplaced victimology and racialised invective than arch-Zuma loyalist and — appropriately for the crude metaphor she invoked — Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane.

Speaking just after Zuma had received his parliamentary get-out-of-jail card last Tuesday night, Mokonyane allowed the waiting world to plumb the depths of her oratory. She declared: “White people can’t urinate on the country’s democracy.”

Apart from her classy rhetoric, her ability to count — the ANC has far fewer than 40 white MPs — is all of apiece with her political talents. She headed the ANC elections committee, which in August 2016 delivered four of the five major metros into the hands of the opposition.

Frantz Fanon is much beloved as a source of inspiration for so-called ANC revolutionaries. Interestingly, perhaps the only proper Marxism and developmental scholar sitting in Parliament these days happens to belong to the DA. And as Belinda Bozzoli reminds us, Fanon once predicted “the colonial (or in this case, racial) enemy is rediscovered once their own plunder becomes too obvious”. Eerily prophetic.

Not quite in the same league of rhetoric but sounding fairly similar notes is Zuma’s anointed successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But she lacks her former husband’s sharp wit and has been leading a campaign of thudding dullness, sticking to a familiar script unaided by the song and dance act that so enlivened her former husband’s rallies back in their glory days. But Dlamini-Zuma did take one moment to relieve the monotony of her message by tweeting slightly off the white monopoly capitalism message on Monday. She reminded the world, and the citizens of his beleaguered island of Cuba: “Yesterday one of the giants of internationalism would have turned 91 … happy belated birthday El Commandante Fidel Castro.”

I suppose in the Zuma universe dead revolutionary whites are okay. But if the good doctor paused to look more closely at today’s Latin America, she would be deeply discomfited, at least from her “revolutionary” perspective. The populism that has become the ANC’s crude calling card is in recession there. The so-called “pink tide” of leftist populists is in retreat, from Argentina to Peru.

In Brazil, one leftist president was impeached and another former one is en route to jail for corruption. This does not apply in Cuba, where elections are not allowed.

But for Venezuela, where another revolutionary socialist holds power only by upending his own constitution, an end of sorts is nigh. The 12-body regional power bloc Mercosur abandoned its normal solidarity politics and denounced President Nicholas Maduro for his “rupture of the democratic order”. This unprecedented step would be the regional equivalent here of the Southern African Development Community denouncing Robert Mugabe and his stolen elections.

Quite whether the rip tide of populism on this side of the South Atlantic has ebbed is far less certain. And our wounded, now vengeful, president must hope that it is still swelling in the ranks of his own party.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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