[ANALYSIS] Cometh Zuma’s day of reckoning?

In the incredibly tough, complex and probably painful negotiation that is currently keeping the nation transfixed, there are likely to be ebbs and flows, with the occasional meander before a raging rapid. The last few days have been tranquil and almost boring, even though frustration has been building in many parts of society. But Monday, today, is likely to see the rapids become a waterfall. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has basically confirmed that today the ANC’s NEC will vote to remove Jacob Zuma from the Presidency. It is still theoretically possible that the river could be blocked, but it now seems unlikely.

There has been much criticism of our politicians of late for their refusal to speak plainly, to say what they actually mean. But you don’t need a dictionary or a political thesaurus to work what Ramaphosa meant on Sunday. Speaking at the commemoration of the day he held the speech read by Nelson Mandela in 1990, he introduced the subject of “the transition” and then went on to say:

“But as you have all heard, the national executive committee will be meeting tomorrow to discuss this very matter. And because our people want this to be finalised the national executive committee will be doing precisely that.”

There is no other way to interpret this. He is saying that the NEC is going to vote to recall Zuma.

It was, in a way, a climax to a day that had started with the report in theSunday Times that Zuma is being offered a deal which would keep him out of jail. The paper says the deal would see Zuma testifying as a witness against the other accused, as what is called a “204 witness”. This would see him avoid prosecution. This led to much discussion about how this would surely be ridiculous. The whole point of that section of the law is to allow the police and prosecutors to use evidence from a little fish in a criminal operation to net the big fish. What bigger fish can there be than a sitting or former president?

But this understandable outrage may be assuming that just because an offer is being mentioned it’s actually on the table. That is much tougher to confirm, and it would be foolish to make such a prediction. It also neglects the fact that such a decision by the (new) head of the National Prosecuting Authority would still be reviewable by a judge. In other words, a judge could throw out the entire deal. And in a negotiation that is as closely held as this one, it may be a mistake to judge people on what they say in public, or what they allow to be said in public. Ramaphosa didn’t mean that he didn’t want to humiliate Zuma when he used that phrase in Davos. What he was doing was negotiating through the media. It was actually a threat. The endless opinion pieces explaining exactly why Zuma should be humiliated would have helped him hugely.

At the same time, while many people were simply outraged at the thought of Zuma turning state witness, imagine the emotion in Saxonwold, wherever on the planet that may be right now? Panic. Surely. If a group of crooks are feeling the pressure of the police, and some of them think that one of them may be about to give up the others, what do they do? You know the movies. They either kill the person, or go to the police first. In this case, murder is not an option, and so they may well consider getting in the queue ahead of Zuma.

The net result of all of this is that it may well close off more of Zuma’s options.

Meanwhile, several other comments during Sunday’s Mandela memorial may have been designed to increase the pressure on Zuma.

First, the entire event was choreographed just to remind everyone exactly how close Ramaphosa was to Mandela the moment he came out of prison. The ANC has obviously commemorated Madiba, and his release, many times. But for a relatively numerically unimportant anniversary, it was on a pretty big scale. As always when it comes to commemorations, the politics of the day decides what in the past is important and why. And yesterday it was important to portray Ramaphosa as the natural successor to Mandela. It is a powerful statement, planned to negate the claim that Ramaphosa was a latecomer to the ANC because he wasn’t in exile.

Then there was the sheer number of times Ramaphosa mentioned “corruption” and “Mandela” in the same sentence. The message was obvious. Fighting corruption is doing Mandela’s work. Take that, Mr Zuma, where’s your argument against that?

And if just to make sure that no one was in any doubt about to whom he was referring to, he said that they would make sure the operations of state-owned entities are “straightened and no single one will operate in the interests of individuals or certain families”. Yes Ajay, he’s looking at you.

All of this then leads us to several questions and several dynamics. The first is why the ANC’s NEC is meeting today when Ramaphosa cancelled the meeting that was due to be held last week. That meeting was supposed to recall Zuma but Ramaphosa postponed it because they were having “fruitful and constructive” discussions. While it is perhaps possible that a deal has been done and Ramaphosa wants the NEC to ratify it, that seems unlikely. The details of any deal would leak immediately, and it would be foolish to shake hands on a deal and then let another 80 politicians get involved with it.

It is more likely that the talks are no longer “fruitful and constructive” and that Ramaphosa needs to actually conduct the vote. This does carry a slight risk. Those with memories of fighting Zuma may be tempted to get faintly conspiratorial, and suggest that he will have used the week’s grace well, and could have somehow gathered enough votes on the NEC to survive. But again, this is unlikely. First, it would go against the interests of the majority of the NEC to keep Zuma out. Most are in Parliament, and would surely know by now that their jobs are in jeopardy in 2019 if Zuma stays there much longer. It is also true that were Ramaphosa to call such a vote and lose it, his leadership of the ANC would be over. But the ANC itself would be finished too. It could simply not survive.

This means that on balance it is much more likely that the ANC’s NEC will vote to remove Zuma. And don’t forget Ramaphosa’s own confidence on the issue, when he says “the NEC will do precisely that”.

There is, of course, a third option. That the decision to call an NEC meeting was actually a negotiating tactic, to remind Zuma that Ramaphosa has the votes. If so, at the time of writing, it doesn’t appear to have worked.

All of this then points to a decision by the NEC to recall Zuma. The question is what happens next. While it seemed likely last week that he might resign, as Thabo Mbeki did, if he is digging in his heels he may no longer take that route. That could see this being dragged out a few more days through a confidence vote in Parliament.

While it is entirely human to be frustrated with the time that this is taking, it should be remembered that Ramaphosa may not be too worried about it. If he gets Zuma out, no one is ever going to care how long it took, simply that he did it. And as this drags on, the chances of Zuma people trickling over to his side grow. This means that his support increases without causing any unnecessary drama in the ANC and its NEC. Considering that we know where both Ace Magashule and Jessie Duarte stand on this question, that’s not a bad thing.

All of this serves to indicate, again, how Zuma is out of options. And if he wasn’t out of options, if he had any left, why hasn’t he used them yet? And if he was sure that “the people love me” (as he was quoted as saying last week), where was he on Sunday? And why wasn’t he at the Mandela memorial?

It has been said many times over the last few days that time is running out for Zuma. There surely can’t be much sand left in that hourglass. And he can surely now hear the roar of the waterfall.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

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