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[ANALYSIS] Firing Ramaphosa could turn into political suicide for Zuma

It is now beyond trite to say that tensions are rising within the ANC, and that the stakes – money, power, lives, an entire country – are huge. In the past, it has been easy to smack down the more outlandish speculation. But President Jacob Zuma’s latest Cabinet reshuffle, in which he failed to consult the ANC’s top leadership, and his apparent reasons for it, show that we are now at a stage where almost anything, including the removal of Cyril Ramaphosa as Deputy President, can indeed happen.

Generally speaking, those in the business of attempting to analyse politics are well-advised not to speculate too far. Everyone will have their own definition of “too far” and too fevered. However, just three years ago no one would have thought an ANC leader would ignore his own party and appoint a Gupta hit man to the position of Finance Minister. And no one would have predicted that this same man would go so far as to threaten the entire alliance by removing Blade Nzimande without getting the go-ahead from at least the ANC’s top six leadership first.

Back then it was unthinkable that someone so obviously corrupt as David Mahlobo would have control of a R1-trillion purse. But this was before we could read Sunday Times headlines explaining that Vladimir Putin was not just Tsar of all Russia any more, but also of a part of Africa. (Though many would add Washington DC to his growing collection.)

This means that what we thought could never happen can now actually happen. And thus we must proceed with even more caution with our analysis. That said, it is important to imagine the possible implications of the removal of the man who Zuma fears the most.

What will worry the supporters of Ramaphosa is that we have seen this sort of whispering game before. First comes the claim of an “intelligence report” (which happened in both the Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan sackings), then the suggestions from “sources”, then a strange event, or two, and then the actual sacking.

Then there is the analytical explanation for why Zuma may move now. For those who live in the urban bubble, it seems Ramaphosa has built momentum that might appear unstoppable within the ANC. If Ramaphosa wins in December, Zuma’s future looks bleak, and his own recall looks like one of the smaller problems he would have to worry about. In other words, it does appear Zuma feels under pressure, and thus has to act to keep control of the ANC.

It is this that leads to the speculation, fostered by WhatsApp messages doing the rounds that Ramaphosa would be charged with treason in some way, to disqualify him from running in December. Of course, this is slightly far-fetched. A criminal charge would not disqualify him, and the wheels of the justice system move too slowly to secure a conviction before December. So, technically it simply wouldn’t work. But Zuma knows this is not about the technicalities of the law, it is about political power. He needs something to change the narrative and in the process tar Ramaphosa as the bad guy.

But the sheer awfulness of Zuma’s reputation makes this difficult to achieve. Ramaphosa could be seen live on TV snatching an ice-cream from a baby, and people would still believe it was Zuma. It is Zuma who took the money from Schabir Shaik, who took our money for Nkandla, who presided over the Gupta looting and who played a big role in breaking the ANC and the alliance. So when people refuse to believe that he could be the “good guy”, he has only the man in the mirror to blame. And so strong is the belief that the National Prosecuting Authority is fully captured by him – it was the decision to charge Gordhan with the flimsiest of fraud charges that cemented that perception in the public mind – that no one believes anything they do anyway.

This immovable reality limits Zuma’s options and narrows his playing field into a tiny passage. Much of the speculation that has come about a possible move against the deputy president has come from within Ramaphosa’s inner circle. James Motlatsi was the first to go public with the claim. As other analysts have pointed out, this could be an attempt to limit Zuma’s options. By going public in this way, you raise the stakes for Zuma, you put your allies on alert, you warn society of what could happen. This means that if he does move, they are ready to respond, in much the same way that people were ready for the removal of Gordhan. And there may also be the happy consequence for Ramaphosa that all of this puts pressure on Zuma. The presidency has to keep denying that he wants to remove Ramaphosa, and in the end, it could make him look too weak to remove him. While Zuma may enjoy being cast in bronze, he doesn’t enjoy being cast as weak.

It must be pointed out at this juncture that if Zuma were to remove Ramaphosa, history would be repeating itself. Thabo Mbeki removed Zuma as deputy president of the country in 2005, after the conviction of Shaik. That led to a huge pushback from the ANC, after Mbeki tried to get him to resign as deputy president of the ANC as well. In the end, that groundswell led to the tsunami that removed Mbeki from office. Even then, with clear evidence that Zuma was corrupt, it was seen as the removal of a person posing a threat to Mbeki. The same would be very clear here. It would look even more obvious than it did then, because the ANC’s conference is only weeks away.

But the ANC of today is very different to the ANC of 2005. Back then Zapiro could draw a cartoon of an ANC meeting with men and women sitting next to each other with shower-heads or pipes coming out of their heads. The divisions now are not nearly so simple, everything is much more complicated because of the situation the ANC finds itself in. This means that such a reaction is not actually cast in stone.

What is blatantly obvious, however, is that a move against Ramaphosa now would lead to complete chaos in the ANC. It would seem hard to imagine that the party’s top six could ever meet again. And in fact, the national working committee as well may battle to hold a proper meeting.

In the end it would be up to the national executive committee – the structure that has done more than anything else to keep Zuma in power. At the moment it appears that this committee may not be moving against Zuma mainly out of a fear of damaging the ANC before the conference. But this reshuffle, and a removal of Ramaphosa, would demonstrate that the ANC doesn’t matter to Zuma, that he is now beyond the party’s control. No senior leader of a party is likely to enjoy that.

The same dynamic would surely play out in the ANC’s caucus in the National Assembly. Already more than 30 ANC MPs have shown they are prepared to vote against orders, and risk losing their jobs, by voting against the retention of Zuma in a confidence vote. The reason so many allowed him to stay was because they knew voting him out then would lead to a huge division about who would replace him, resulting in a split in the ANC. But, with a president who completely disregards the party, they may feel that the risk he poses to the country is so great, they have to act.

For both the NEC and the ANC’s caucus, the political calculation changes dramatically if Zuma moves against Ramaphosa. There is a strange resonance now with what happened towards the end of the Mbeki administration. He was so isolated from the real picture on the ground that he and the people around him simply didn’t know how angry the country was with him and his policies. It may be that history is repeating itself in this aspect too.

The Russians will be studying our politics very carefully. There may be more riding on this for them than any capitalist in London. If it is possible for anyone to predict that there will be huge pushback to Zuma in this way, that there would be democratic obstacles to the nuclear plan ever being implemented, then surely they can see that too.

The question that faces us then is more worrying. If none of the political options work for them, or for Zuma, what other options could they possibly be considering?

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

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