Be patient, Zuma's end is nigh
There is an old saying that there are only two ways out of politics – death or failure. Since Jacob Zuma is apparently still alive and kicking, his highly developed political instincts will be telling him that he is on the verge of an ignominious end to his inglorious reign as president of South Africa.
He will go soon. It is a question of when, not if. But his prolonged departure from the scene is driving people nuts.
While I realise that there is impatience and even anger out there in the general public, and that these feelings of frustration are entirely understandable and justifiable given the harm that Zuma has done to South Africa, I do believe that we need to remain calm and patient.
Why? For two reasons. The first applies to any political transition – and that is what this is. They are rarely smooth or simple.
I recall from my formative years the seismic political event of that time in the UK: the end of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year rule. She came to power in 1979, but by the end of the 1980s she was deeply unpopular – in the country and within her own party, who feared that it would cost them the 1992 general election.
So, in 1989, she was challenged by a ‘stalking horse’ candidate who received 33 votes out of around 350 Conservative Party MPs - remarkably similar to the number of ANC MPs who voted with the opposition in the no-confidence vote last August.
Thatcher would not go and, even when a year later a further more credible challenge was presented to her, she announced that she intended to “fight on; I fight to win”. Again, shades of Zuma’s defiance of recent times, when he has continued to insist that he will remain as president and that the people “still love me”.
A few days later in November 1990 a delegation of the most senior Tories visited Thatcher in 10 Downing Street and late that cold autumn night she was persuaded that her party was now fully against her and that she must leave. She resigned the next day.
We are almost at that point now with Zuma. This past week the Top Six leadership of the ANC told Zuma that he must go and that the party would be better without him as president, mindful as they now are of the presence of the 2019 election on the horizon.
When he refused, the National Working Committee of 20 decided to employ their main weapon – the National Executive Committee (NEC) – because it is only the NEC that has the power to ‘recall’ Zuma. It is the primary constitutional body of the ANC and between five-yearly conferences is the ultimate repository of power and decision-making authority.
The NEC was elected in December, two days after Ramaphosa’s narrow victory. Like the Top Six, the 80-person NEC was split almost 50-50 between members of the CR17 slate and those from the Dlamini-Zuma slate that was largely loyal to Zuma.
But power has a gravitational pull, and since December a decisive number of the latter group will have drifted away and moved towards Ramaphosa. They understand which side of their bread is buttered.
The decision to call the urgent NEC for this past Wednesday must have meant that Ramaphosa knows that he has a majority on the NEC now and that it would be willing to pull the trigger against Zuma, just like it did back in September 2008 against Thabo Mbeki.
Why then did Ramaphosa ‘blink’, as his critics have claimed in the past few days, by postponing that NEC meeting? Was he not being ‘duped’ – to use the word that one of my (pro-Cyril) ANC sources used when expressing concern about the decision - fretting that it was not only putting off the decision, but giving Zuma more time to regroup.
Many people on social media – some of whom are political commentators and activists who should know better – proclaimed excitedly that this was a terrible misjudgement by Ramaphosa and, moreover, a sign of weakness that he would come to deeply regret.
I beg to differ. Ramaphosa holds nearly all the aces (if you will pardon the pun) in that the ANC’s new secretary-general, Ace Magashule, is, in fact, something of nuisance given that because of his own Gupta-links, he remains apparently determined to obstruct the Ramaphosa reform agenda.
In contrast, Zuma has very little to negotiate with. He knows that the NEC can still remove him. The worst he can do is to threaten to destabilise the ANC, by getting his people to disrupt the unity project that Ramaphosa is also seeking to execute.
This was always going to be a challenge for the new ANC president: to reconcile two competing twin-peak strategic imperatives – remove Zuma and rebuild unity in the ANC. That is why he is proceeding very carefully, ensuring in particular that his deputy, DD Mabuza, is with him every step of the way.
This, then, is the second reason why Ramaphosa has acceded to enter into these negotiations with Zuma. Many people can’t understand this; they just want Zuma to accept that the writing is on the wall and go.
But that is simply not in his character. Like Thatcher, he is a fighter, and he will fight on until the very bitter end. What precisely he wants to get from the negotiations is not known, because the ‘circle of trust’ in relation to the discussions between the two politicians is very tight, which has made my job and that of all political analysts and commentators very tough this week.
In the meantime, we must trust in Ramaphosa’s own strategic and tactical wit and savvy. Like two fine chess players, it will take a bit of time. But, Ramaphosa will prevail. Be patient and wait and see.
Richard Calland is a constitutional law professor at UCT, political commentator and author of The Zuma Years: South Africa's Changing Face of Power and Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa's Next Three Decades. Follow him on Twitter: @richardcalland