Watch the Sitholes every Thursday at 17h30 on e.tv
It was the late Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill who coined the expression “All politics is local”. And it’s a maxim President Jacob Zuma has evidently taken to heart.
One could surmise Zuma had used O’Neill’s advice to get into the highest political office in the land, taking advantage of his rival Thabo Mbeki’s preoccupation with foreign matters, to outmanoeuvre him at ANC grassroot level before Polokwane.
Zuma has nonetheless been more of a foreign policy president than some observers expected. But one senses that even when he lifts one eye to the horizon, he always has the other firmly fixed on home soil.
He has also shown his relative disregard for matters foreign by making far more political appointments to ambassadorships than any of his predecessors.
South Africa might hold the record for the number of unwanted politicians and the like who have been dumped in embassies.
Perhaps it’s because of his relentless domestic focus that Zuma’s foreign appointments are so seldom taken for granted. So the jury is still out on his reasons for putting up his ex-wife, then home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as a candidate for the chair of the AU Commission in 2011.
She, of course, won the election in the middle of 2012 after a bruising campaign and millions of words had been devoted to analysing what the foreign policy imperatives were that motivated Zuma to challenge so many continental powers in this way.
For some observers it was much more simple - he simply wanted to get her out of the way back home as he feared she’d be a rival - directly or indirectly - before Mangaung.
Who really knows? But it is interesting that Dlamini Zuma is not committing herself yet to running for a second term at the AU.
She said at the recent AU summit in Addis Ababa she would not accept the ANC’s nomination to run in the May 7 election and would complete her AU term in 2016. But it was premature to look beyond that.
Some believe she is positioning herself to run as ANC president in 2017.
Inevitably, perhaps, some conspiracy theorists are putting the same sort of interpretation on Zuma’s appointment of ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa as his special envoy to South Sudan and Sri Lanka, which he officially confirmed in his State of the Nation speech last Thursday. (A speech, incidentally, which was also very local even by Zuma’s standards, with barely a foreign reference.)
Is it Zuma’s intention to try to control Ramaphosa’s exposure to the electorate during the campaign over the next few months in case he upstages him too much?
Remember, there are those who believe the ANC might yet decide Zuma is too much of a liability and replace him with Ramaphosa before his second terms ends, if the ANC does badly in the elections.
The counter-argument would be that Zuma needs Ramaphosa precisely to drum up support and prevent the ANC doing too badly in the elections.
The other conspiracy theory is that Zuma has appointed Ramaphosa to the South Sudan job to spite Mbeki, who is the AU’s special envoy to Sudan. Ramaphosa was of course Mbeki’s rival for the top job even before Zuma was.
Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj has dismissed this interpretation, noting that Mbeki’s mandate is to mediate between Sudan and South Sudan whereas Ramaphosa’s will be to mediate between the Salva Kiir and Riek Machar factions within South Sudan’s ruling SPLM party which are now fighting each other.
That makes sense although it would be interesting to know if Mbeki himself shares that view.
However, we must remember that it was Kiir who asked Zuma to mediate and not Zuma who volunteered.
Whether Ramaphosa can add value to the plethora of special envoys and mediators already in the field remains to be seen though.
He will certainly bring a wealth of negotiation experience.
Perhaps his greatest challenge, though, will be to remain impartial while the rest of Africa has pretty much sided with Kiir.