Zuma on the brink
Cyril Ramaphosa now looks set to become president a year earlier than scheduled, writes Peter Manson
After a frantic few days for the African National Congress, it looks as though Jacob Zuma is about to succumb to the pressure and agree to resign as South African president.
Ever since the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC leader in December it had been a matter of time before his supporters on the national executive committee made a move against the head of state. True, Zuma’s second and final term as South African president was set to end immediately after the 2019 general election in any case. But the argument had been that, with Zuma still at the helm, the ANC would be severely handicapped and would perhaps lose its parliamentary majority.
There are still 783 corruption charges hanging over him and are supposedly due to be reinstated in a few weeks time. Then there is the commission of inquiry into ‘state capture’ - ie the corrupt influence said to be exerted over government appointments by Zuma’s close business contacts. This commission is about to start its hearings and Zuma has been summoned to appear before it.
But even more pressing was the ‘state of the nation’ address (Sona), due to be delivered by Zuma on February 8. Clearly he would have used it to blow his own trumpet, while the left-populist opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, would have played into his hands by trying to prevent him speaking, allowing him to pose as a patriotic democrat. But on February 6 the two parliamentary speakers, or presiding officers, announced that the Sona had been postponed.
Apparently, the two speakers had been “dismayed in the past four years at the disruption, anarchy and chaos that have been characteristic of this annual joint sitting”; and “Developments this year - particularly the calls for disruption ... have, therefore, caused us great concern.” So they “decided to approach the president of the republic to propose that we postpone the joint sitting in order to create room for establishing a much more conducive political atmosphere”. But - would you believe it? - “When we met the president, we then learnt that he was already writing to parliament to ask for the postponement.”1
Behind the scenes
What had happened was that some - or perhaps all - of the ‘top six’ ANC national officers had had a private meeting with Zuma on February 4, when they insisted that he must not address parliament (the idea held by at least some of them being that if the Sona was delayed then perhaps the speech could be delivered very soon by the acting president of the republic - ie, Ramaphosa). This postponement was ratified the following day by the ANC’s national working committee, which meets between gatherings of the national executive. The NWC then authorised an NEC meeting for February 7.
Incredibly, although the ‘top six’ officers were supposed to be evenly split between the pro-Zuma and pro-Ramaphosa wings, both factions seemed to be united on the need for both the suspension of the Sona and for the position of Zuma to be urgently discussed. Jessie Duarte, the ANC deputy general secretary elected on a pro-Zuma ticket, told the press: “The NWC has discussed the issue surrounding the future of president Zuma and the matter that we had discussed will be taken to the NEC.”2
There was also the question of the no-confidence motion against Zuma that was due to be moved in parliament on February 22 by the EFF. Duarte said: “A vote of no confidence is not desirable, under any circumstances.” The reason she gave was: “Our most important consideration is that we don’t believe South Africa should wish for us to embarrass the president of the republic, in any way whatsoever.”3 In reality the matter most likely to qualify as the leadership’s “most important consideration” was the belief that the replacement of the president ought to be driven by the ANC itself.
Duarte also remarked: “The inability of the NEC to have a decision has already had an impact on members on the ground, creating confusion, indecision and is creating what we saw on the streets of Johannesburg yesterday.” She was referring to the February 5 clashes between Zuma and Ramaphosa supporters, when members of the black-nationalist pro-Zuma faction, Black First Land First, were attacked outside the ANC headquarters by Ramaphosa partisans. Zuma’s proposal - announced without warning at the December elective conference, in favour of legislation allowing for the expropriation of land without compensation - had obviously gone down well in some quarters, but the presence of the BFLF outside the head office was not to the liking of one pro-Ramaphosa thug, who viciously attacked a BFLF woman, while the police stood by.
When asked what would happen if Zuma refused to resign after being recalled, Duarte said such a thing had never previously occurred: “I have not met a deployee that has refused an instruction by the organisation. That has not happened.” In other words, the dismissal of Zuma was more or less a fait accompli. But, of course, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the president would go quietly, in exchange for a deal whereby Ramaphosa would agree to protect him from prosecution.
Then, suddenly, late in the evening of February 6, the ANC announced that the special NEC meeting, called just hours earlier, had been cancelled. According to Business Live, the ANC secretary-general’s office sent an email to NEC members, which read: “By the directive of the ANC president we hereby inform you that after fruitful and constructive discussions between the ANC president and [Zuma] held this evening … [Ramaphosa] has postponed the special NEC meeting ...”4
ANC spokesperson Khusela Diko confirmed that the meeting would be delayed until February17. It turns out that Zuma and Ramaphosa had had a last-minute face-to-face meeting: According to Diko, “The postponement came on the advice of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa after his engagement with president Jacob Zuma.”5
So what agreement did the two come to, which caused Ramaphosa to pull back from an open confrontation? It seems more than likely that Zuma has now agreed to step down - although “It is not yet known when Zuma will tender his resignation, as the terms of his exit are being finalised.”6
Getting it wrong
Interestingly, on the very day that both the NWC decision to call a special NEC meeting and the postponement of the Sona were announced, the Morning Star carried a short report, which noted the “speculation in white-owned anti-ANC media that Mr Ramaphosa and other ANC officials elected in December had urged the president to step down at a private meeting on Sunday”. It added: “No confirmation of that emerged yesterday, suggesting the rumour was false, as with many earlier reports.”7
Well, I am afraid the rumour was not false on this occasion. The author of the report was a certain James Tweedie, who is not only the Star’s foreign editor, but the son of the South African Communist Party’s main internet hack, Dominic Tweedie. So perhaps he ought to have known better. For example, on the same day the South African website, Eyewitness News, described what a number of insiders had been telling the press:
Since Tuesday morning, several African National Congress leaders who attended the national working committee (NWC) meeting on Monday have been speaking to Eyewitness News about the likelihood of Sona being postponed. The reasons they gave included, if president Zuma was not to resign before Wednesday’s national executive committee meeting, the party’s highest decision-making body would move to recall him and there wouldn’t be enough time for the party to finalise who would deliver the address.
Some sources are telling EWN that the president will be recalled on Wednesday night and that his removal will be put to a vote if his supporters don’t give in. They say if he refuses to go even after a decision is made, MPs will be instructed to vote in support of a motion of no confidence in him.8
Despite such commentaries, the implication of Tweedie’s report is that the “white-owned anti-ANC media” are exaggerating the divisions. After all, they are all opposed to the ANC-led “national democratic revolution”, aren’t they? It is true that the bourgeoisie (both black and white) would prefer the ANC to drop such language and dissolve its alliance with the SACP, not to mention the SACP-led Congress of South African Trade Unions. On the other hand, it is well aware of the role of the SACP and its use of ‘Marxist’ terms in keeping the ‘NDR’ within safe limits.
In addition, the SACP is hardly making a fuss about, for example, the anti-working class legislative package that is currently before parliament. The proposed amendments to the Labour Relations Act would make it much more difficult to legally call a strike - employers would be able to win a binding anti-strike judgement much more easily from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. Meanwhile amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act would reduce the already minimal protection enjoyed by low-paid workers in sectors where union organisation is weak. I have yet to see any statement condemning the package of amendments from either the SACP or Cosatu.
The truth is that, while sections of the bourgeois media would certainly prefer the solidly rightwing Democratic Alliance to the ANC, most know full well that a DA government is just not going to happen any time soon. What is more, they now have, in the shape of Cyril Ramaphosa, someone who says he is committed to eliminating the overt corruption seen under Zuma, thus clearing the way for profitable capital investment. After all, Ramaphosa, as South Africa’s 12th richest man (and second richest black man), has substantial interests in several large companies. Until recently he owned the South African franchise for the chain of McDonald’s restaurants, and he was a director and major shareholder of the UK-owned Lonmin, the company employing the 34 Marikana strikers massacred by police in 2012.
And now he has a new soulmate. Another announcement made on February 6 was the appointment of Pule Mabe as the ANC’s new national spokesperson to replace Khusela Diko. Like Ramaphosa, Mabe is a prominent capitalist, one of whose companies allegedly was “improperly” awarded a contract worth R33 million (£2 million) from the state-owned national rail company without the correct tender processes being followed. What was that about eliminating corruption? It is clear that the ANC is already being shaped in Ramaphosa’s image.
But, not content with dismissing the talk about Zuma’s impending departure as just another “rumour”, the story in the next day’s Morning Star focused almost exclusively on the postponement of the Sona - which apparently had nothing whatsoever to do with the leadership crisis: “South Africa’s parliament postponed tomorrow’s state of the nation address by president Jacob Zuma yesterday over opposition threats of disruption,” wrote James Tweedie. Surely measures to minimise such “disruption” could have been put in place?
Similarly Tweedie junior played down the significance of the (subsequently abandoned) special NEC meeting. His only comment was:
The ANC national working committee said on Monday that it had called a meeting of the 80-member national executive committee for today to discuss the “transition” between Mr Zuma’s presidency and Mr Ramaphosa’s.9
But the SACP itself had no such reticence about the turmoil in the ANC. The party has long been calling for Zuma’s resignation - a call opposed by Tweedie senior, by the way. (Like father, like son?)
The party issued a furious statement late on February 6 condemning Zuma on two counts: firstly his “tribalism” in allegedly mobilising fellow Zulus to demonstrate in his support, so that he could “continue overstaying his welcome in office”:
The SACP reiterates its decision for president Zuma to resign and for the ANC to recall him if he remains intransigent by refusing to resign. The constitution of our country requires the president to unite, and not to divide, our nation. President Zuma’s conduct is reckless and unacceptable. The SACP is calling on all South Africans to unite in defence of our country and not allow him to go down with our hard-won democracy.10
Secondly, the SACP claimed that Zuma had been planning to fire Ramaphosa as deputy president and “replace him with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who he wants to position to take over as acting president, should he find himself removed from office”. Dlamini-Zuma is the president’s ex-wife and was his preferred candidate to succeed him as ANC leader and eventually state president.
The SACP concludes:
To that extent it would be very clear that president Zuma is also determined to divide and destroy the ANC through unrepentant factional conduct. The SACP calls upon the whole of our movement, as well as South Africans in general, to reject regressive forms of mobilisation and abuse of state power to try and manipulate and further polarise internal ANC and alliance politics.
Unlike the Tweedies then, the SACP is open about the ANC crisis - a crisis that, for the moment at least, seems likely to be resolved in favour of the Ramaphosa faction.
5. The Mercury February 7.
7. Morning Star February 6.
9. Morning Star February 7.