President Jacob Zuma is a dead man walking, metaphorically speaking.
The political free rein allowed him by cowed party colleagues for the past seven years has suddenly been pulled in. He remains nominally in charge but increasingly less in control.
In December, Zuma’s manoeuvring to allegedly benefit cronies led to the firing of respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and his replacement with what was perceived to be a pliable neophyte. Markets predictably went into free fall but instead of being able to ride it out with glib reassurances that foreign investors were just “over-reacting”, Zuma had to retreat for the first time.
In the face of an unexpected demarche from cabinet colleagues and normally ANC-sympathetic business leaders, Zuma’s handlanger was unceremoniously dumped after only 48 hours. Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, sidelined in a 2014 Zuma cabinet reshuffle, was hastily rehabilitated and dispatched to apply his digits to the crumbling financial dyke.
This week, late on Tuesday night, the presidency unexpectedly announced that Zuma will pay back some of the R246 million of state funds spent on his private Nkandla home. Such a U-turn, after two years of refusing to countenance this option — instead brazening it out and conducting a vicious campaign against Public Protector Thuli Madonsela — smacks of panic.
These events are triggered by the need to keep Zuma away from negative public scrutiny in the run-up to the May local government elections, in which the ANC is vulnerable to reverses.
Firstly, the ANC wants to avoid a bruising legal battle and likely defeat. The Constitutional Court is the arena for a showdown next week between Zuma’s legal team and lawyers representing the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance.
The ANC strategy seems to be that if the payback offer is accepted, Zuma’s climb down can be portrayed as an act of statesmanship. Or as he put it, “a simple [solution] … that is beyond political reproach … to a drawn-out legal controversy”. That’s an enticing prospect, especially if the terms of the court order can be kept vague, leaving lots of wriggle room for a later Houdini-like reprieve for Zuma.
Secondly, Zuma does not want to conduct his State of Nation address (Sona) for the second time under a barrage of “pay back the money” chants, while EFF MPs are dragged kicking and screaming from the Assembly. Or with teargas in the streets outside Parliament, as happened with the #FeesMustFall student protests.
In that regard, the EFF has scored a coup. Its bullying street-politics has been cunningly followed with their measured application, belatedly joined by the DA, to the Constitutional Court.
The EFF, better than anyone, realise that while SA’s Number One might be tone deaf to constitutional nuance, he is finely attuned to changing political tides. Especially when this is signalled by jeering at public gatherings or being made to look weak in front of the Sona television cameras.
Zuma’s mistake then, was one of offering too little, too late. If, as this columnist suggested, he had in 2014 simply accepted the Public Protector’s report, affected contrition, and offered some recompense, the issue would by now be politically inert.
And given the potential for arcane formulae to engineer perverse results, he would not even have had to worry too much about the quantum owing. As @BazilTheBulldog tweeted, referencing SA’s artificial cricket loss to England on Tuesday in a rain-interrupted game, “According to the Duckworth-Lewis method Zuma only has to pay back R500 over 6 years.”
Instead, the EFF and the DA, sensing victory, will likely reject Zuma’s offer and pursue a Constitutional Court ruling, which will include the court defining the ANC-challenged ambit of the Public Protector’s duties and powers. Instead, Sona will again be a circus, with Zuma the chuckling but inept ringmaster. Instead, scores of ANC-councillors will lose their seats and possibly, as well, the ANC will lose control of another major metropolis.
While it is true that Zuma is statistically immune to an ANC recall, a la former president Thabo Mbeki, that will not shield him from increasingly fretful party colleagues. Somewhere in the past couple of months a line was crossed and internal ANC opposition is growing.
At best, Zuma will end his term ostensibly in charge but in fact quietly stripped of the ability to do more damage. At worst, he might find himself so humiliatingly marginalised that his pride dictates a resignation on the grounds of ill health.
There is a third scenario. That Zuma will do what has worked so well for him in the past seven years — ignore everyone to steam ahead intent only on securing his own interests and those of the opportunists and hustlers that trail in his slipstream, feeding like gannets on the rich pickings that his presidency kicks up for grabs.
This is the scenario that opposition parties will be secretly hoping for, for that is the one that will ultimately inflict maximum damage upon the ANC.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye