The time has come for ANC leaders to rise above saving careers and to start saving their 101-year-old movement, says Max du Preez.
President Jacob Zuma is a lot more unpopular among the public and the ANC rank and file right now than Thabo Mbeki ever was.
Mbeki’s position as ANC leader never really threatened the party’s standing at the polls, while indications are that unhappiness with Zuma could cost it dearly at the next election.
And yet the ANC’s party machinery is still in “protect Zuma” mode. Is this because Zuma is a better political street fighter than Mbeki? Is it because Zuma has so successfully mobilised the powerful Zulu-speaking vote? Are too many influential ANC leaders beholden to Zuma and fear for their own positions once he’s gone?
Perhaps one part of the explanation is that Zuma’s position wasn’t so dire a year ago, when he was re-elected at the ANC’s Mangaung conference. Mbeki was ousted at the previous elective conference in Polokwane. I suppose it is harder to get rid of a leader in mid-term.
When I wrote the last chapter of my book, A Rumour of Spring, in September, I felt bold enough to state that I could see no way that Zuma would serve a whole term after the 2014 elections. His position has weakened significantly since then, what with the booing at the Mandela Memorial, the Nkandla debacle and the abandonment of the ANC by the biggest trade union, Numsa.
I know that there are many quiet conversations going on among the ANC’s 100-member national executive committee on if, how and when the party should rid itself of Zuma.
But there doesn’t seem to be a single strong lobby working towards this aim – not yet.
Perhaps the culture of fear in the ANC is to blame for this. Zuma and his acolytes have shown repeatedly that they could unleash a storm of gossip around anyone speaking out against him, even use the criminal justice system to punish such a person. And as those who had done it can attest, it can be very cold outside the ANC.
I would suggest that the time has come for those in the broader ANC leadership, those outside Zuma’s inner circle, to rise above saving careers and to start saving their 101-year-old movement. It seems likely at this point that the ANC could dip under the 60 percent of the popular vote next year. If that trend continued, the ANC could lose the 2019 elections.
My advice to the ANC would be to be bold and decisive and to drop Zuma before the elections in May next year, not after. The ANC needs a shocking move, a daring statement like that to communicate to the electorate that it hasn’t become yet another smug, failing African liberation movement; that it has a vision for the future and a strong-minded leadership to right the ship. Business as usual will not stop the rot.
But two things will have to be in place before such a step: the ANC’s strongest province and Zuma’s heartland, KwaZulu-Natal, will have to be prepared and won over for such a step; and there has to be an obvious successor.
The ANC’s treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize, would have to be the key man to work Zuma’s home province. He is a proud leader in the respected Mkhize clan, former premier, a medical doctor, a man largely untainted by scandal.
At 57, he must surely be regarded as a strong candidate to lead the ANC in years to come.
Mkhize could be well assisted by former police commissioner Bheki Cele, a flamboyant and talented politician hugely popular in KwaZulu-Natal. He is only 62 and reportedly harbours ambitions to occupy higher office, which he won’t under the Zuma administration after challenging the president after he was fired.
Apart from cabinet ministers Jeff Radebe and Siyabonga Cwele, Zuma’s strongest ally is SACP leader Blade Nzimande. But the SACP’s fortunes are quickly waning with the rise of the real socialists outside the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the dissidents led by trade unionists Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim.
ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is still the strongest candidate to lead the ANC after Zuma. But he has powerful enemies inside the party and his role as a Lonmin shareholder during the Marikana massacre is being used effectively against him, fairly or unfairly.
His opponents are probably underestimating him, as did his adversaries in the last apartheid government during the negotiations before 1994. His standing probably got a boost with his prominent role during the period of mourning after Nelson Mandela’s death.
I think if the ANC went into the 2014 elections with Ramaphosa and Mkhize (with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma perhaps?) as its top leaders and a strong signal that it has rejuvenated the movement – it could recapture the votes of a lot of those considering other options right now.
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.