So what happens to embattled South African President Jacob Zuma now? Can he survive his last year in office? Will it be a hard exit or a soft one? Tongues are already wagging about an early exit no matter how it is done.
As the days go by since Cyril Ramaphosa was named as his successor amid the cheers and chaos of the African National Congress elective conference on the sweaty night of December 18. The rand and the markets surged in step with the pulse rate on that night of victory for the so called “business” candidate. The rand hit a nine month high on that night; one wonders what could have happened if the vote had gone the other way.
I was there that night, a stone’s throw from the stage, at the climax of days of horse trading. If anything, those crazy days were a masterclass in the brutal maelstrom of ANC politics.
Now we prepare for the next act of one of Africa’s oldest liberation movements. In January there will the 106th anniversary celebrations and a meeting of the new 80-member National Executive Committee.
At the NEC the departure of President Zuma is highly likely to be on the agenda. This shindig in East London is the right place for Ramaphosa to put down his markers of authority. For him, first prize would be a swift exit for Zuma at the behest of the all-powerful NEC. Ramaphosa managed to get a number of his heavyweight supporters elected to the NEC (see full list of members below), like former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and former Reserve Bank Head Tito Mboweni, but not enough of them. His majority in the NEC could be as slender as 41-39, according to Steven Friedman, a Political Analyst.
“I think Ramaphosa can forget getting rid of President Zuma early. This small majority puts handcuffs on his wrists and ankles. He has a lot of expectations on his shoulders to end corruption and change the direction of the economy, but he will have very little room to move,” Aubrey Matshiqi, a Political Analyst with the Helen Suzman Foundation, said.
Ramaphosa could sit it out, until the elections in mid-2019, most analysts agree, unless the ANC looks likely to lose that election in the face of rising opposition. That could persuade NEC members to ditch the unpopular Zuma name with all of its baggage and corruption allegations.
“This could happen with an act of self-preservation by Zuma supporters. If they think they are going to lose their jobs after the 2019 elections they will certainly look to dump Zuma later in the year, Matshiqi said.
If Zuma is recalled he will be the second South African president in-a-row to suffer the indignity; a move likely to be seen with unease by foreign investors. Thabo Mbeki, the second president of a democratic South Africa, was recalled by the ANC in 2008 after losing the 2007 elective conference to President Zuma. Staunch Zuma supporters said at the elective conference this week, in Johannesburg that they would fight to stop the incumbent suffering the same humiliating fate of a lame duck president.
There is a third way. The NEC could negotiate a soft exit for President Zuma by agreeing to use the State of the Nation address in February as a farewell speech. This way he would be praised and lauded by his faithful followers on his way to retirement with all the dignity.