Why Zuma will survive Nkandla
There have been many times when President Jacob Zuma's political career seemed to be teetering on the edge. Headlines warning of his imminent political demise came when he was named as Mr X in the Scorpions' arms deal investigation, when he was fired as deputy president after the Schabir Shaik trial, when he was charged with fraud and corruption, when he was on trial for rape, and even for a while during the African National Congress (ANC) policy conference in 2012 when his camp looked to be on the back foot. Zuma survived against all odds, rose to be president and secured second terms as ANC and state president. Now political obituaries are again being scripted. But Zuma will likely survive this round too.
On Sunday, SABC television news carried a story of the ANC in the Free State declaring its support for President Jacob Zuma. ANC provincial chairman Ace Magashule claimed there was a "co-ordinated plan to discredit the president" and that "an attack on the president is an attack on the ANC". Magashule went on to say that "Jacob Zuma is indeed the treasure of the African National Congress" and that he needed to be defended against "attacks of imperialist forces and counter-revolutionaries".
The SABC footage did not show whether Magashule was asked which "imperialist forces and counter-revolutionaries" he thought were responsible for upgrading Zuma's Nkandla homestead to cause this current bout of trouble for the president. It did not also appear that he was asked why the ANC was so ill prepared to manage the Nkandla issue when it was clear years ago that something was horribly wrong with how the project was managed and the exorbitant spending on it.
Even the most cunning "forces" could not have planned the non-stop spectacular disaster that Nkandla has turned out to be for Zuma and the ANC. Zuma's allies are clearly desperate to cook up some conspiracy to rescue him, using the same formula that bailed him out in the past. But Nkandla is very difficult to pin on someone else, and the mismanagement of the issue can only be blamed on Zuma and those around him.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's report on Nkandla was released in March. Zuma, his advisors, his legal team and the ANC leadership had several months to figure out the best strategy to manage the issue so that it is put to bed. However, the best they came up with was to stall the matter until after the elections and then obscure Madonsela's findings and recommendations by amalgamating them with that of the Special Investigating Unit and government task team reports.
The matter was then left to the ANC's parliamentary caucus to deal with through the ad-hoc committee. It would seem that nobody considered that possibility that the issue could blow up before then, with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) pinning Zuma down in Parliament on when he would pay back the money, or that Madonsela could exercise her right to challenge the president's (non-) response to her report.
Now that Zuma has been cornered, the ANC has gone into attack mode, with people running helter-skelter to do damage control. Apart from the security cluster ministers introducing new, yet-to-be disclosed security measures at Parliament, ANC officials are now flying conspiracy theories about an "anti-majoritarian offensive", "imperialist forces" and "counter-revolutionaries", which apparently involve the EFF and the Public Protector.
Now that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and metalworkers union Numsa have also jumped to Madonsela's defence and echoed the EFF's demand that Zuma "pay back the money", it would be interesting to hear ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe's theory of how they fit into the conspiracy. (It will no doubt be trumpeted sometime soon.)
It all seems rather ridiculous, when the obvious way out is for Zuma to agree to pay a "reasonable percentage" of the non-security benefits at Nkandla and neutralise the issue. Zuma's excuse that he did not ask for the upgrades has long fallen flat, and there is no way for him to escape paying for the benefits unless he finds a way to overturn Madonsela's findings in court. It would be foolhardy for him to even attempt to do so, however, as it will only to serve to drag the matter out longer, and turn public opinion even further against him.
With Zuma's problems piling up as a result of the Nkandla matter and the spy tapes judgment going against him, the old political obituaries are being dusted off and updated. There have been headlines like "Zuma on the ropes" and "Zuma's setbacks could see him forced out of office, say experts".
Yes, Zuma is in a very bad place politically, and he is looking weak physically and otherwise. But that does not mean he is done for.
Zuma can only be removed from office if there are enough powerful people within the ANC to incite such a move. It does not matter how much opposition he faces outside the ANC; it is only the people within the ruling party who can run a campaign for his early retirement - on whatever grounds.
At the ANC's 53rd conference in Mangaung in December 2012, the Zuma camp crushed all forms of dissent and completely immobilised the campaign to have him replaced. While there are pockets of irritation and many people concerned about the long-term impact of Nkandla on the ANC, there is no group or individual who will be willing to stand up in any formal structure of the party and motivate for Zuma's removal as president.
Zuma's destiny is also deeply intertwined with that of the leadership of the ANC and Cabinet. The national executive committee of the ANC was elected as part of the Zuma slate. Zuma also appointed the team of 72 ministers and deputy ministers, and the premiers of the eight provinces run by the ANC. They owe him. If he falls, they all fall. They have no guarantee about their political future if he goes.
The consequences will not only be immense for the ANC but will also have repercussions in the Congress of South Africab Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party. Zuma's allies therefore need to prop him up, not only because they have created the perception that they are actually defending the ANC, but also for their own political survival.
There are only two ways Zuma could leave office early. The one is if he becomes critically ill and unable to perform his duties as president. But as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has demonstrated, ill health need not be a reason to snatch power from his hands. Zuma is not a very visible president, and if he did get very sick, there could be ways to keep it hidden.
With so much riding on him politically, his inner circle in the presidency and in the ANC could certainly find ways to keep the South African public from finding out and explain away his absences. As was evident by the way his illness in June was handled and details of his trip to Russia last week were masked, it is possible to conceal such matters.
The only other way for Zuma's term to be cut short is if a contender for president becomes visible and ready to offer protection to all those sheltered under Zuma's wing. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa appears to be the most likely person to take over from Zuma as ANC president in 2017 and state president in 2019. However, it is not clear what his game plan is or whether the Zuma camp will rally behind him. Ramaphosa is not confident enough to stick his neck out to challenge Zuma, as he wants to be the ANC's consensus choice.
Zuma faces no other challenge to his leadership. If there are others in the ANC leadership who have their sights set on the top job, they are not willing to show themselves yet. Any attempt to do so might even be perceived as part of the great EFF-Madonsela-Numsa conspiracy to defeat Zuma.
There is also the matter of Zuma's corruption charges being reinstated. Zuma and his allies know that there is a greater chance of fending this off while he is in the Union Buildings, with a grip on the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), than if he is retired in Nkandla. There is no guarantee that whoever becomes president after Zuma will keep the NPA in check and stop them from recharging him.
So Zuma will remain a lame duck for the foreseeable future and the ANC will continue to defend him as their leader and "treasure". It is not really a single man survival strategy but rather a large group of politically vulnerable people clinging on to each other as they hang over a very high cliff with a long way to fall.
Zuma might look done for, but do not count him out just yet. Many have done so in the past, only to find that the Teflon man always finds a way to bounce back.
This column first appeared on _ Daily Maverick._