Zuma has demonstrated over the years of his presidency that no spoils have been sufficient to satisfy his appetite and to acquire wealth, by whatever means. Thus, the interests of the ANC and of the country at large have counted little – next to amassing wealth for himself. He has been uninterested in the fate of the economy following some of his actions, including junk status or losses to the currency. Who can forget the way he triviliased the concern over Nkandla, which, it now turns out in the light of State Capture, may be paltry in monetary terms compared with what may be found to have been siphoned away to Zuma and his associates due to this State Capture?
The first reactions of many may well have been that Zuma was depicting himself as the victim of a conspiracy, “re-running” his campaign against Thabo Mbeki, which saw his acquittal on rape charges and the withdrawal of the various fraud and racketeering charges in 2009 – leading to his being eligible to be president, and not standing as accused in his criminal trial, until now.
It was a successful self-depiction that formed part of his campaign to defeat Mbeki for the ANC presidency, and to have him recalled as state president. At that time, he won the sympathy of the ANC at large, the South African Communist Party, and Cosatu, the federation of trade unions. They all bought into and propagated his victim-narrative, as well as then depicting him as being a people’s leader sympathetic to the poor.
Many things have changed since then. After the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla and the ongoing evidence of State Capture – which implicates Zuma – many who had defended him right up until then broke ranks. Only a few leading figures of the SACP and Cosatu remained sympathetic to Zuma.
We know that the ANC conference in December was fought with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a person who has her own claims to be a leader, widely understood to be a proxy for Jacob Zuma. Support for her was seen as ensuring continuation of what Zuma had done and stood for.
The conference elected Ramaphosa, albeit with an ambiguous mandate. Half of the Top Six officials elected were Zuma supporters, or had fairly recently changed sides, and there was a similar breakdown in the rest of the national executive committee.
The months that followed have seen the evidence of Ramaphosa being the leader, resulting in the apparent neutralisation of many Zuma supporters or their ‘crossing over’ to support Ramaphosa. This is a phenomenon that has been repeated countless times, as some people have at one moment opposed a candidate – but then changed sides when it appeared that this same person had been placed in a position where they would decide on matters affecting their (the supporters’) future positions, and fortunes in general.
This is because we live in a period when there is no longer an ANC of ideas, an ANC of ethics, an ANC of clear principles (which is not to say there are no individuals with integrity or to deny that Ramaphosa is taking steps to clean up the state). The process may have predated Zuma, but it is a reality that people generally no longer join the ANC because of its vision or its ethics, but for what it can do for them, often in material terms.
But the Zuma resentment at being charged has now taken on more serious overtones, going beyond his pique or bitterness at the hand that fortune has dealt him. The ANC NEC made a ruling that individuals were free to show their support for Zuma in his court case, but were not allowed to wear ANC insignia. This ruling was openly defied as thousands, according to City Press, turned up to support him and to chant slogans supporting him.
Some of the slogans chanted and reported on were calling for the downfall of Cyril Ramaphosa, and signifying that he did not deserve support as an ANC leader.
Those backing Zuma are, in many cases, not from ANC structures – for example: funeral undertakers, taxi associations, charismatic churches, and Black First Land First (BLF, reportedly funded by the Guptas), and in the case of the ANC, dubious groupings such as the Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans’ Association (MKVA).
But there is an ANC component, within the ANC in KwaZulu Natal, whose leadership is not yet constituted on a legal basis, attending court but also allegedly plotting along with others in support of Zuma and aiming at undermining Ramaphosa, by electoral and other means, including the formation of a new party.
The plotters within the ANC, if the allegation of their plotting is true, are not sufficiently confident of their support to admit frankly that they are supporting Zuma as well as opposing Ramaphosa. In general, they articulate well-known legal phrases – like an accused (person) is innocent until proven guilty, and suggesting that they are exercising their individual rights to attend without endorsing anything as emanating from within the ANC.
But Zuma’s bitterness at being in court has turned from self-pity, which is still articulated, towards a more aggressive stance. He has signified that he believes he has been betrayed by those who have been close to him. He has indicated that he is not allowed to beat up people, as he would have wanted to do. He has had to content himself with singing war songs. Most ominously he has said that he does not think this will end well.
Now, what is being done to ensure that it does not end well? And what are the states of readiness of the contending forces?
It is claimed in some reports that the ANC of KZN may go it alone, or a new party will be formed in order to undermine Ramaphosa’s leadership, or that BLF and the various disaffected ANC members will act together in future elections. It is unclear what is rumour and what is fact regarding their plans for the future.
In the meantime, what is clear is that there is a lot of muttering of discontent over Zuma being brought to court, when he says he has harmed no one. That muttering converges with unhappiness with Ramaphosa, who is said to represent “white monopoly capitalist” interests – and Zuma is said to be facing charges because he champions “radical economic transformation” and the cause of black people.
It is unclear how many people buy into this narrative of victimisation of Zuma and how significant their support base may be, if they come from any leadership structure. It does appear, however, that it is aimed at undermining Ramaphosa, possibly as a defensive measure to abort Zuma’s trial or possibly to remove Ramaphosa and have some version of a return of Zuma’s style of ANC and state.
That the NEC’s instruction not to wear ANC insignia was ignored, and the leadership did not pursue disciplinary measures, was wise in the sense that it could have inflamed the situation and increased opposition to Ramaphosa. But how will this unfold?
It could be that some of those who serve reluctantly under Ramaphosa, in the light of the defeat of Dlamini Zuma, and who also face the possibility of being criminally charged at one point ot another, are waiting for things to unfold. There may be at least two to three members of Cabinet, and at least one, maybe two or three, members of the Top Six. They may hedge their bets with regard to their support for Ramaphosa, acting cautiously for now. They are not unswervingly loyal to Ramaphosa, so they may wait for the moment when they can safely switch sides, if they feel the tide is turning.
My guess, however, is that while this may become a serious threat, most people will be cautious in expressing a loyalty other than to the existing president – thus risking being removed and cast-out into the cold in the company of a ragtag bunch, like MKVA and BLF.
But what is the capacity of the Zuma side? Zuma faces a substantial financial crunch, with Ramaphosa having withdrawn an appeal against a North Gauteng judgment where Zuma has to pay costs personally, amounting to around R15 million. The DA is challenging the state’s payment of Zuma’s legal fees in general, and that case has still to be heard in court.
Zuma’s legal team may wish to raise a number of challenges to the decision to prosecute, as well as the possibility of his having a fair trial, but he may face considerable financial constraints that make this impossible. The financing of political support is also constrained. Apparently, R1-million was raised for the bussing-in of people to the court appearance, but that is from what is described as a shoestring budget. Some reference is made to reviving the Friends of JZ process, from when he faced his previous trials, to raise funds. But times have changed and there are not clear indications that it will draw significant funds.
The stakes are high for Zuma in that, should he be convicted in the current criminal case, Nkandla could itself be seized – insofar as it would have been built partly on the basis of fraudulent transfers from Shaik.
But should the Zuma camp manage to get themselves organised on a cohesive basis and raise funds, is Ramaphosa unassailable? While he has consolidated significant support in the last few months, with many former Zuma supporters recognising that the game has changed and Ramaphosa is the president, some of these, it is well known, would have preferred otherwise. Their loyalty cannot be counted on.
If Ramaphosa wants to build a loyal base that can withstand the current attack and any other challenges that may arise in the future, it is necessary to ensure that those who form his support are united around ideas and principles that sustain South African democracy, constitutionalism and transformation. Notions such as ethical leadership need to be elaborated on, articulated and enforced.
That may not be immediately achievable, but there need to be strenuous efforts to move from treating significant ideas and ways of acting as mere phrases to be recited from time to time, towards substantial understandings that are embraced and lived out.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house-arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.