[ANALYSIS] Unpredictability rules as Zuma enters the real game of risk
With confirmation late last week that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is becoming a Member of Parliament again, speculation is swirling that President Jacob Zuma is going to reshuffle his Cabinet in order to include her. There is a strong basis for doing this; life as a back-bencher is unlikely to be edifying for the former chair of the African Union Commission. But, so close to the ANC’s conference, any move by Zuma carries risks. And any appointment of Dlamini-Zuma to a position will carry consequences, both for him and for her. At the same time, the element of unpredictability in our politics is growing stronger; it is harder to predict what any of the actors, particularly Zuma, will do.
On Friday afternoon it was confirmed that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would be returning to Parliament. She has been there for many years in the past, having played several ministerial roles. But she has spent no time as a backbencher. She was a Minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, and went through the Health, Foreign Affairs (as it was then) and Home Affairs ministries before going to the AU. The benefit to her, and to her campaign for the ANC leadership, of just sitting in Parliament at the back would surely be minimal. There would be an official government salary, some security, but that would be about it. She could be in a position to enter the Cabinet more quickly after December, but that could be the only advantage.
This would suggest that she is indeed going to enter Cabinet before December. With a ministerial post comes much more. There is power, prestige, and with that, endless campaigning possibilities. You can imagine how much of a department’s budget can be used on travel, with movements around the country (as opposed to just KwaZulu-Natal) for announcements about free this and subsidised that. In short, it would raise the spectre of government money being used to fund an internal party campaign.
But there are some problems. Ministerial portfolios exist for the purpose of giving people responsibility, to make someone actually responsible for something. So, just as we hold Bathabile Dlamini responsible for the social grants payment system mess, so she would have to be accountable for something. Imagine, for example, the Sunday Times’ suggestion that she will take over Higher Education is correct. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really hold much responsibility, and she may then get to take the applause for announcing free higher education. But it is also likely that the students who have shown some cynicism, and some political prowess (they did get Mantashe to come and speak to them outside Luthuli House…) would see through her appointment in a hot second.
While organisations aligned to the ANC, such as Cosas and Sasco, may applaud her appointment, other student groups may protest against it. If Zuma is the symbol of the state and all that is wrong with it, it is hard to see how she escapes being labelled another symbol of the same problems (as an aside, should there be no #FeesMustFall protests against her, that could be an indication that the relationship between leaders like Mcebo Dlamini and government is much more complicated, particularly after State Security Minister David Mahlobo confirmed that Dlamini has been to his private home).
The same would hold for any other position, such as Health, Basic Education, or even Public Service and Administration (imagine her having to deal with the Treatment Action Campaign, or Sadtu, which has demanded that Zuma leave office, or Cosatu-affiliated unions). The other problem is that Dlamini-Zuma having held the most senior ministerial positions in the past, there is really only one place to go from Home Affairs and International Relations. And it would be risky for Zuma to move Malusi Gigaba from Finance right now. Anything less than that would be too junior. Dlamini-Zuma as Trade and Industry Minister, for example, would just look like a demotion. And a “Minister without Portfolio” position could be too transparent and too junior.
At the same time, one of the criticisms made against Dlamini-Zuma is that she does not offer a view on issues in the public domain. If she was given a Cabinet post, her actions would reveal those views, which could make life more difficult for her.
Then there is the political situation around whether Jacob Zuma could carry out a reshuffle right now. His previous move, which saw Pravin Gordhan and others being axed, was all about the removal of key people, rather than the appointment of others. Gordhan himself was the story. This means there would probably be less reaction this time around. And it is worth repeating that Dlamini-Zuma certainly has the kind of track record that would allow supporters to proclaim she deserves to go back into Cabinet; there is surely no objective reason to argue against her appointment.
That said, some of the same problems would recur. For example, would Zuma consult with the top six of the ANC or not. If he did, he may run the risk of having them trying to veto the move on the grounds that it could be dangerous to the unity of the ANC so close to its conference. The argument could be that it would be safer and better for everyone to just wait; she has survived without being a Cabinet minister since she came back from Addis Ababa.
Then Zuma would have to consider going against the top six again. If he did, it could give the appearance of strength, while carrying the risk of a backlash. If he did not, it could make him look weak. This could be a difficult political calculation to make.
Zuma could also just ignore the top six, and simply go ahead. That also could carry a risk of a backlash. At the very least it would make it look as if he does not care about Luthuli House, and cares only for himself and his family. That could strengthen the case against him when it is made by his opponents. Thus, it could actually strengthen Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The key question is whether he would move against Ramaphosa. Under the law, the Deputy President is simply a member of Cabinet, and can be removed by the President at any time, just like any other minister. But surely, at this point, it would provoke a huge reaction against Zuma. Historically, it could bring back memories of how Zuma himself was removed by Thabo Mbeki after the Shaik trial in 2005, which then became the springboard for Zuma’s ultimate victory at Polokwane. Ramaphosa would surely argue that his sacking would be proof that Zuma is not democratic, does not care about the interests of the ANC itself, and that he is acting with criminal intent.
One of the key features of the criticism of the last reshuffle, from people like Ramaphosa, Mantashe, and ANC Treasurer Zweli Mkhize, was the claim that the list of new ministers “had been created elsewhere”, in other words, Saxonwold. It is very likely that that claim would be made again.
But there is now also some evidence that other people with shady backgrounds are playing a role. Hot on the heels of the Sunday Independent’s claim about Ramaphosa’s private life (which were not followed up this Sunday… but perhaps the “stress leave” granted to Steven Motale was a useful excuse to avoid having to prove something that may not be true…) came suggestions in the Sunday Times that Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie now appear to be exercising political power. The paper reported that some ministers are actually scared of them, and that they have access to Zuma himself on a regular basis.
It may be that this is not true and that the people who are saying this are aligned to the Ramaphosa faction, and it is an attempt to further discredit Zuma.
But if it is true, it is very significant. If there are two people who can make the Guptas look classy, it is Kunene and McKenzie. Kunene celebrates by eating dead fish off the bodies of young women, and holds parties that take excess to excess (if you feel the need for evidence, take a deep breath, and click on this. McKenzie is a convict who spent time in jail. In short, they are both punks who have no business in our politics. And there is evidence, apart from the claims in the Sunday Times, that they do. They run a political party called the Patriotic Alliance. It won one seat in Joburg. That councillor, Leanne Williams (who was often published in The Citizen when Motale was its editor), was then given a position on the board of PetroSA. She has resigned from that position now, but it is still rare for a councillor from an opposition party to be given a position on a parastatal that is essentially a decision of the ANC (well… actually Zuma nowadays… but technically the ANC).
If Zuma is actually doing serious business with them, then that is a mark of how low he has sunk. To go from the Guptas, who may not have had the trappings of criminality when their relationship started, to two people who have all the trappings of gangsterism at the beginning of their relationship is surely a steep decline.
It could suggest that Zuma is running out of possible friends and political support. While those who support him may do so more and more strongly, the actual number of die-hard supporters who have weight of their own is diminishing.
Through this year, the political models and structures that could be relied on to give predictions of the future in the ANC have started to fall away. The party, and the people in it, are under incredible stress. This makes it much harder to predict their actions, and their reactions to events. This means that Zuma may well go ahead and give Dlamini-Zuma a senior position. And he may well survive doing that. But it could still have a long-term implication for the ANC’s leadership election in December.
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