Will Zuma duck or become a lame duck?
A media report on Sunday claimed President Jacob Zuma was running scared and would avoid Parliament due to the aggression of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) against him. The presidency immediately countered the story, saying it was incorrect and grossly misleading. But there are clearly attempts by the African National Congress (ANC) to insulate Zuma from the onslaught in Parliament. There have also been persistent rumours about a scaling down of the president's public appearances due to health concerns. Is it possible to run South Africa remotely, and how is that different from the situation currently?
Not many people know what an engrossing storyteller President Jacob Zuma is. He is able to regale audiences, large and small, with stories of yesteryear, and particularly with lesser-known tales of the glory days of the liberation struggle. This is a far cry from the tedium of his written speeches, which have been known to put audiences to sleep.
On Sunday Zuma was addressing a media freedom event at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria, and broke away from his written speech to talk about, among other things, negotiations to end apartheid and the issue of service delivery protests in South Africa. It might not have been very newsworthy for a room full of journalists, but speaking off the cuff allows him to connect with his audience on a more personal level.
Zuma's ability to connect with people is what carried him on a wave of popularity to the presidency. He does not do this often anymore, mostly because his schedule is populated with formal events that do not present the opportunity for him to let his hair down - so to speak. This has been one of the factors that has led to Zuma becoming alienated from the people and perpetuated the leadership disconnect that has so defined his administration.
As a result of the commotion in Parliament on 21 August, when the EFF staged a protest demanding that Zuma pay back the money, the ANC is now worried about further embarrassment of the president. The Sunday Times reported that the ANC wants Zuma to avoid answering questions in Parliament until EFF leader Julius Malema and his contingent "have been tamed".
A disciplinary process against the EFF MPs is currently underway in Parliament as a result of the 21 August incident, but the EFF is boycotting the process. It is not yet clear how the EFF could be "tamed" as even a suspension from Parliament would hardly deter them from badgering Zuma for answers through other means.
ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying: "The president can't go to Parliament when that Parliament is a circus. Parliament therefore must sort itself out." The ANC has decided that more izimbizo (public meetings) should be held where Zuma can engage directly with crowds of people at a time. This should have been happening anyway, not just as an alternative to the constitutional obligation for the president to be held accountable by Parliament.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement that the report suggesting Zuma would no longer attend to parliamentary responsibilities was "incorrect and grossly misleading", and that the president would continue to meet his parliamentary obligations.
"The President responds to oral questions four times a year in the National Assembly. During an election year, this time is naturally reduced, given the time taken to prepare for elections and to establish a new government and other activities. However, discussions are ongoing with the National Assembly to sort out the dates for oral questions," Maharaj said. He said the president also continued to respond to questions for written reply from MPs.
With the ANC caucus in Parliament bending over backwards to insulate Zuma from interrogation, however, they might try to influence that the scheduling of the president's question time be delayed until the completion of the EFF disciplinary process. There might even be attempts to schedule the next question session during the EFF's suspension period.
Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said on Sunday that he would be writing to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, as leader of government business, to account for Zuma's absence from Parliament. The president should appear before Parliament once a term - therefore four times a year - but has only done so once so far. Maharaj attributed this to the elections and formation of the new government.
Maimane said any attempts to relieve Zuma of his constitutional duties should be rejected. "We know that President Zuma has become an embarrassment to the ANC. But this does not mean the ANC has the right to determine whether or not the President appears before Parliament to answer questions," he said.
The issue of avoiding parliamentary questions comes amid rumours of talk in the ANC that Zuma needs to scale down his schedule due to concerns for his health. Since his hospitalisation in June, Zuma has looked run down and unwell. The controversies over Nkandla, the spy tapes and new revelations related to his corruption case, have also led to growing concern in the ANC about the president's image.
Some in the ANC leadership believe that because of all these reasons, Zuma should take a step back and allow Ramaphosa to play a more active role. This would be similar to how Nelson Mandela gradually handed over the reins to Thabo Mbeki during his presidency. However there are already mutterings amongst Zuma's staunch supporters, who are not yet convinced that Ramaphosa is the person they want to replace him, that "Cyril is running the country".
If Ramaphosa is seen to be playing a more prominent role, it is bound to kick the succession battle into high gear, which the ANC is desperate to suppress for as long as possible. Once people in ANC structures begin to sense that Zuma is on his way out, they will begin lining up behind their preferred candidates. This means the factional battles, which tore at the fibre of the ANC before its Polokwane and Mangaung national conferences, will take root again.
There is also the matter of how the rest of the country will respond to Zuma fading off the radar. Zuma's popularity amongst non-ANC members is low and there might be further mocking of the president as "coward" - as he was labelled by the Sunday Times - and a lame duck. Already Malema said in the report about Zuma avoiding Parliament that the president was "scared" of him and his MPs.
"If they say Zuma will not come to Parliament until the mess has been sorted out, it means Zuma will not give the state of the nation address because we'll be there to say that Zuma must pay back the money. It means that Zuma will not be in that Parliament for the next five years, because the EFF is going to be in that Parliament for the next five years," Malema told the paper.
It is not as if the ANC and the presidency can camouflage Zuma's gradual withdrawal from public activities. Even in a totalitarian family dictatorship with no independent media in North Korea, it became evident that something was wrong with the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un when he disappeared from public life for several weeks. The cause of his ill health was uncertain and therefore there was speculation worldwide about his sickness.
In an open democracy such as ours, it would be virtually impossible to conceal it if the president were sick or stepping back from his duties. However, the question to be asked is: how much is Zuma involved in the running of the country anyway? When asked questions, he always defers to ministers or officials. He is not the dominant force in government like Mbeki was, and is by no means the key decision-maker. If he does take on a more ceremonial role, it will perhaps not make that much of a difference to the functioning of the country.
But there is no possible way that Zuma could avoid his constitutional responsibilities, even if he does fade off the scene. He would still have to be accountable to Parliament and face the EFF again at some point. No amount of barricading by the ANC will be able to avoid that.
The thing the presidency and the ANC might consider doing is to allow Zuma to do what he likes doing, which is interacting with ordinary people. What we could all do less with are his droning speeches, which are most times taxing to listen to.
Does South Africa need a hands-on president? Most definitely. But will the country fall to pieces if Zuma is not seen for a few weeks at a time? Probably not.
That alone says a lot.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.