[OPINION] The clear signs of a 'Cyril Spring'

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

President Zuma must be slightly uneasy these days.

The events of the past two weeks have shown that power is seeping away from this president. The great unravelling continues. Quite how it all ends remains unknown and depends on several variables.

Will Cyril Ramaphosa eventually appoint an independent National Director of Public Prosecutions, for instance, and will he be able to build sustained support within the ANC for large-scale prosecutions of many Cabinet ministers and their cronies? And will he then be able appoint a Cabinet filled with people of integrity?

As if we need reminding, there have been some dramatic developments in the past two weeks. The Hawks suddenly grew wings and started swooping on various wrongdoers, chief amongst them ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s premier’s office in the Free State and the Estina dairy in Vrede.

Prior to Ramaphosa leaving for the World Economic Forum in Davos, he essentially ordered changes at the Eskom board. Lo and behold, we have a highly respected chair of that board, Jabu Mabuza, and a CEO, Phakamani Hadebe, who publicly acknowledged that the brave and often maligned media reporting on Eskom’s dire state was completely accurate. It’s not every day the CEO of a state-owned enterprise starts by praising the media.

While all this was happening, Parliament’s own inquiry into ‘state capture’ is continuing apace. No one knows where it will end but former Prasa CEO Lucky Montana has been singing like a canary, implicating several politicians, including former ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize. Montana alleges that Mkhize tried to force him to skim 10% off a rail contract to benefit the ANC. This would be a clear case of the blurring of party and state, at the very least. It also shows how far we still have to go in dealing with the issue of donations to political parties when the act of donating is illicit.

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo is setting up his commission of inquiry into state capture now that the terms of reference have been finalised - an act which Zuma no doubt wished to delay.

Ramaphosa gave some hard-hitting interviews to Christiane Amanpour and on the BBC’s Hard Talk. At Davos he was unequivocal that South Africa cannot afford nuclear power. Energy Minister David Mahlobo was inserted into his position only to ensure that Zuma got the nuclear deal passed and doubtless, the kick-backs too.

So, one might say, witnessing all this, that the momentum belongs to Ramaphosa.
But this is the ANC and so things are never that simple or what they seem.

This weekend the Jessie Duarte-Ace Magashule duo, who are also fierce Zumarites (and themselves and some relatives implicated in allegations of state capture), came out fighting for Zuma. It all seemed like clutching at straws and a rather pathetic fight-back in the face of the Ramaphosa momentum. Duarte, well known for her obsequious and dogged defence of Zuma, accused the media of all sorts of skullduggery and reiterated that Zuma was going nowhere until his term ended. She defended Zuma on Nkandla and pointed to the economic gains under his presidency - surely a stretch of anyone’s imagination since the unemployment rate is at a 14-year high and youth unemployment, specifically, is at crisis levels? She also extolled his achievements in rural development and empowerment. The poor emerging farmers in Vrede who were deprived of the possibility of a livelihood as a direct result of state capture may dispute that.

She ended by saying, “I do sometimes wonder if we are really living in the real world.” One might ask which world it is that Duarte inhabits if she continues to provide cover for a corrupt, compromised president who has done more damage to the economy and the body politic than any other post-apartheid president?

On the same weekend, Magashule went to the ‘soft spot’ of KwaZulu-Natal and made some pointed pro-Zuma comments, “Jacob Zuma is the president of the country. There is no decision which we have taken as the NEC ... it is only factional leaders who want to be populist who are making noise…

So, while there are clear signs of a ‘Cyril Spring’, we should be cautiously optimistic and perhaps not immediately euphoric. Because simply put, Zuma and the corrupt associates who surround him are becoming rather more desperate as the political environment becomes more unpredictable. In addition, the captured state has deep tentacles. Removing Zuma will be an important step, but there are many more steps in this long journey to rid our country of the detritus of the Zuma years.

Ramaphosa has two jobs really - ridding the ANC of corrupt individuals and then the state. He has to do them simultaneously. For many this would be a poisoned chalice. Magashule and Duarte’s disingenuous responses on the weekend show how low those defending Zuma will stoop in defence of the indefensible and how tough Ramaphosa’s task will be.

Tough but not impossible – if the top six of the ANC is split 4:2 in favour of Ramaphosa, as it seems to be, then he may well be able to continue making some quick and important gains. Magashule and Duarte and their constituencies will be the proverbial thorns in his side.

So, it’s all about The Long Game. It would therefore be a mistake to measure Ramaphosa’s progress in asserting his authority only in terms of whether Zuma is dislodged by the time the opening of Parliament rolls along next week.

Either way, Zuma is diminished. If - and that’s a real ‘if’- he delivers the State of the Nation Address next week, he will know only too well that he is on borrowed time.

He is a man unable to lead and his legitimacy as head of state lies in shreds. Zuma will also know that the evidence against him is mounting and that he will be unable to control the Zondo commission of inquiry or the parliamentary inquiry into state capture.

That must make him more than a little ‘anxious’, as Ramaphosa so neatly put it in Davos.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february