Rumours of Zuma’s demise greatly exaggerated
Despite outward appearances, it was not through mere sleight of hand that Thabo Mbeki was removed as president of South Africa in 2008. While the ANC national executive committee met a week after Judge Chris Nicholson's damning judgment indicating that the corruption charges against Jacob Zuma were politically motivated, and decided that he should be "recalled", there was an enormous build-up and work on the ground which began years before.
ANC leaders loyal to Zuma, Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League all did intensive work on the ground to ensure there was mass sympathy for Zuma as a political victim and negative sentiment towards Mbeki as the villain. The case for Mbeki's removal was made long before Nicholson provided the pivot for the execution. There was such momentum in the ground campaign against Mbeki that it erupted and manifested in unprecedented actions among ANC members such as the burning of T-shirts bearing Mbeki's image and singing insulting songs about him.
Also, Mbeki could not have been removed from power in a vacuum, there had to be another protagonist on the scene. Zuma, of course, was ready, able and willing to play that role. Zuma won the first battle in ANC structures by winning the party presidency in Polokwane, and Mbeki was so politically weakened by the time of the Nicholson judgment that he could hardly put up a fight to save himself in the ANC. Even if he tried, he could never have been able to counter the Zuma tsunami - as Zwelinzima Vavi so aptly dubbed the campaign to get Zuma to the Union Buildings.
Getting him out would take an equal force of nature.
The Citizen reported on Monday that "plans are afoot to sack Zuma following the widespread outrage over the Gupta aircraft scandal". "ANC top brass have concluded that Zuma's relationship with the Guptas has brought the organisation and the government into disrepute and Zuma should go," the paper reported a source as saying.
"The ANC national executive committee (NEC) has lost confidence in Zuma and a good leader is likely to be chosen to replace him," the source went on to say. This story has fired up some public debate about whether the scandal-prone Zuma could be on his way out.
There is no doubt that the landing of a planeload of wedding guests from India to attend the Gupta wedding infuriated many people, including within the ruling party. And privately, many people blame Zuma's relationship with them and the excessive liberties allowed to the Gupta brothers as a result for the security breach at a national key point. The hard-hitting media statement issued by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe last week was certainly widely supported in ANC and alliance structures, and it was rare for the party to be that critical of its own government.
The Mantashe statement was perceived as proof of a rift between him and Zuma, and lent credence to the story that perhaps there could be a move to oust the president.
The problem with wishful thinking is that it has a tendency to alter perceptions. First, the ANC NEC has not met since the Gupta furore erupted last week, therefore how would the supposed loss of confidence be expressed or tested? Second, the NEC elected at the ANC national conference in Mangaung is so heavily packed with die-hard Zuma loyalists that it would be difficult to get even five out of the 80 members to speak out against him, let alone a majority. Third, even if through some phenomenon the NEC decided to act against Zuma, would it not fear a tremendous backlash from the ANC membership which elected him through an overwhelming majority as their president just five months ago?
Fourth, and perhaps most crucial, who would the "good leader" be whom it would replace Zuma with? While the source quoted in The Citizen story might be someone fed up with Zuma's presidency, he or she clearly does not understand ANC processes.
In order to gain support for a change in leadership, there needs to be exhaustive work in ANC branches swaying sentiment against Zuma and testing support for possible replacements as there is no apparent successor. There needs to be a crew of influential leaders and strategic thinkers co-ordinating the campaign nationally and in the provinces, as there would be variance in support in different parts of the country.
Part of the reason the "Forces of Change" campaign to replace Zuma with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in Mangaung failed is that it took too much for granted and had no coherent political strategy to work with. Motlanthe's reluctance to compete also paralysed the anti-Zuma campaign. Any future move against Zuma would therefore be destined to flop again unless there is a strong candidate to take him on and a groundswell in ANC structures to replace him.
Neither of these exists right now. Even if it is true that there is a fallout between Zuma and Mantashe, the secretary general is not strong enough on his own to challenge the president. Mantashe has the additional problem of his core constituency, the Left, being at war with itself and therefore hardly in a position to support him. In fact, in the unlikely event of Zuma and Mantashe going head-to-head, most of the SACP and part of Cosatu would support the president. But while Mantashe was bold in speaking out against the Guptas and state officials who aided them, he did not and will not attack Zuma directly. He is also far too smart politically to play a kamikaze by running a one-man campaign against Zuma.
The only other person who could be a replacement for Zuma would be Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC deputy president. But Ramaphosa has just returned to active politics and his individual support at present is not known. In any event, he consented to be on the Zuma ticket in Mangaung following certain guarantees about his political future from the president's camp. Five months later, he is hardly in a position to go out on a limb as the figurehead of a campaign against Zuma.
But the most important consideration is that most of the people in the current ANC leadership have vested interests in keeping Zuma in his position for now. They would not dabble with their own political survival and economic interests just because they are irritated with the Guptas exploiting their relationship with Zuma.
Whatever the investigation into the breach at the Waterkloof Air Force Base might throw up, the one thing it will not do is implicate Zuma directly as the person who authorised the landing of the Guptas' private plane. Therefore the annoyance at his relationship with the family is unlikely to provide the basis for any kind of action against Zuma, let alone a recall from his job.
In any event, the state-funded renovations at his private home at Nkandla, the deaths of 13 soldiers in the Central African Republic, the poor performance of his government, worsening unemployment and police brutality are all serious indictments on his leadership and yet these have not prompted discussions in the ANC about whether he is worthy of continuing in his job.
Discussions and negative sentiment outside the ANC have absolutely no impact on Zuma and his job security, although these colour perceptions among the chattering classes. The only time the earth will move under his feet is when strong voices within the ANC speak out directly against him - as they did against Mbeki five years ago - and momentum builds from the ground up against him, in favour of a new protagonist.
Until then, Zuma is flying comfortably towards a second term as state president, his Gupta baggage safely stowed in an overhead compartment. Fasten your seatbelts, South Africa.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.