Four days in December. They are the prism through which the actions of President Jacob Zuma will be viewed from now on.
December is dozy time in South Africa. Whether you are in need an electrician or a lawyer, your options are few, right through to mid-January. Deprived of public interest, even politicians go into hibernation. Except this year.
For reasons that remain murky in detail but seem to have been self-serving in intention, Zuma fired the respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. He then appointed a political non-entity in his place.
The result was a currency crisis, public outrage and calls by some ANC stalwarts for Zuma to be ousted. The presidential nerve proved to be weak.
After initially refusing to provide any explanation for the dismissal, Zuma issued a flurry of unconvincing statements trying to extricate himself. Most importantly, he reversed the appointment of the biddable Des van Rooyen, replacing him with Nene’s predecessor, the experienced and urbane Pravin Gordhan.
While South Africa is clearly not on the cusp of an Arab Spring — well, at least not on the issue of an authoritarian and drifting presidency — the significance of these four days in December should not be underestimated.
Firstly, Zuma not only lost, but he lost on an issue he thought he was unassailable on. Defeat is a new experience for him, for however pathetic might be Zuma’s grasp of economics, the Constitution, or geography, he has until now proved to be an exceptionally astute political operator. Number One was until last weekend simply unchallengeable.
Secondly, the cracks are spreading in the ANC monolith. When the ANC won the 2014 general election with an almost four percentage points lower share of the vote, there was little concern within the party, the assumption being that a populist Zuma agenda could shore up the vote for decades to come.
Since then the depth and width of the financial abyss facing SA has become more apparent. And that SA is balanced precariously on its lip can largely be ascribed to the looting of state assets that he has presided over, the incompetent ministers he has tolerated, and the corrupt, inept cadres he has deployed to key public entities.
Now the alliance loyalists are beginning to wonder, is the ship going down or merely taking water? And do we ride it out, risking drowning, or do we make the captain walk the plank? As in days of yore, one has only one chance at a mutiny.
These four days in December were an unexpected and violent squall. The year ahead looks even more difficult, with further credit downgrading, currency vulnerability, and economic doldrums ahead.
There are also the reefs of the local government elections. The ANC simply cannot afford to lose another metro to opposition forces. As it learnt from the Cape Town experience, for the want of the metro, eventually the province was lost.
Captain Invincible has been shown to have an Achilles heel. And while Zuma remains, on the numbers, invincible to a Thabo Mbeki-style recall, if he is seen by his ANC comrades to be responsible for any further setbacks, there will be increasingly desperate attempts to convince him to stand down for the sake of the party.
The Jaundiced Eye column resumes on January 9, 2016.
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