Only the ANC can fix this Zuma mess

It is not yet known what exactly President Jacob Zuma did to face down those in the ANC top six who were dissatisfied with his Cabinet reshuffle, and the firing of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister and Mcebisi Jonas as his deputy (among other shuffles, the utility of which is more opaque — wasn’t Tina Joemat-Pettersson sufficiently servile, for instance?).

But face them down Zuma certainly did. Perhaps it had something to do with the swing vote exercised by Baleka Mbete, who is known for balancing her political priorities very carefully.

Or perhaps it was simply that Zuma, having wielded his power as head of state to its fullest extent, was confident enough simply to say an outright “no” to Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Zweli Mkhize, the three members of the ANC top six who made vocal objections to the high-handed way in which Zuma had shuffled his political deck to ensure favourable outcomes for his patronage network — and against the advice of anyone who remotely understands the economy and why it’s in the doldrums.

Either way, Zuma has slapped them down and, for Ramaphosa, at least, this is probably the end of his political ambitions. If he was the hope of those who are pushing for the ANC to correct itself and, in government, to stem the corruption that has blighted Zuma’s term in office, their hopes have been dashed.

The questions going around are about whether he “lacked the backbone” to “stand up” to Zuma, and whether Zuma had “something on him” that made Ramaphosa back down. It may have nothing to do with the state of Ramaphosa’s vertebrae or any purported skeletons in the closet; it may simply be that he was facing off against someone who has essentially seized power, or seized yet more of it for himself, and who is not going to back down.

We are, however, left wondering whether having figures such as Ramaphosa and Mantashe speak out against Zuma would make a difference. Was too much faith placed in the democratic tradition of the ANC? Too much faith in the honour of the party leaders? Are we relying on a
history that has long been eroded by the likes of Zuma?

Behind the veil of exercising his constitutional powers as president,
the president has consolidated his grip on power and whacked several opponents out of the arena. Yet he has not shown himself to be particularly bound by the Constitution in the past, so we can be assured he was simply making use of whatever levers of power he had in hand to increase that power.

The president has consistently undermined institutions that could hold him in check, just as he undermined and thrown off even those who had supported him in his rise to power. He no longer needs them and they can be dumped; the South African Communist Party and Cosatu (the rump of the body he split and fatally weakened) turning on him and saying he should go will not, in fact, make him go.

If the cries of Ramaphosa et al were in vain, so will those of Blade Nzimande be. So will all the fine speeches of the opposition in Parliament. So, too, unfortunately, will be the many anti-Zuma and anti-corruption protests and marches. If anything, we’ve been reminded that Zuma is a wily politician. He knows where his support lies. And he will pander to that support — retreating to his strongholds in moments of crisis, insisting the voices of dissent are few and misguided.

It is still up to the ANC to fix this mess.

By Editorial, Mail and Guardian South Africa