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President Jacob Zuma was clearly unable to carry out his duties this week. So why did he just delegate some duties to his deputy and not appoint him as acting president? asks Susan Booysen.
Carefully laid presidential succession plans came precariously close to derailment this week, courtesy of President Jacob Zuma undergoing his “health checks” and “rests”.
President Zuma was not well, certainly not well enough to perform meaningful duties. The presidency of South Africa, and the president’s spin doctors, nevertheless, spawned a virtual president.
It came through statements that the “president sympathises with the Mbeki family”, “declared a provincial official funeral for Mrs Epainette Mbeki” and “requested Cyril Ramaphosa to officiate” at Youth Day celebrations.
The Zumaists had to ensure that Deputy President Ramaphosa (also ANC deputy president) would not be propelled into any position – in particular that of acting president of the country – that could further propel him into getting seen, accepted and entrenched as the inevitable presidential successor.
At the time of writing it remained blurred whether President Zuma was very poorly disposed, as sick as the changes in the texture of his face in recent years suggest, just fatigued by a taxing election campaign, or perhaps neither of these.
The first two weeks of pulling together a new administration, on top of a punishing election campaign, might have reduced classical mythology’s Hercules to fatigued shambles.
Since the election the president has had to balance ANC factions, provincial power mongers, strident fractions of leagues and alliance partners while finding rewards for loyalists and presidential defenders. But he was in consultation with close colleagues… not his responsibility alone.
Somewhat indisposed or not, pause for the duration of this paragraph on the fact that we are dealing with the president of smoke and mirrors. Dare we disregard that the president escaped direct accountability to the ANC’s NEC on how his escapades subtracted from election performances?
Expediently, his absence from the cabinet lekgotla – on the eve of a crucial State of the Nation address – also dispersed responsibility for the new term.
Back to the given explanations for the president being unwell… It was a punishing campaign indeed, having to dodge public protector findings and booing crowds for months on end.
And there was no post-election honeymoon, no indulgence in hope for a time of ANC renewal and reconnection with the people, like we had five years ago.
The presidency spin doctors were outdoing themselves. Mac Maharaj and the freshly appointed (in the nick of time, it will probably turn out, given the need to counter Ramaphosa’s deputy presidency) Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe. Gwede Mantashe, as ANC secretary-general-meets-head-of-government-business, carried comparable weight.
The messages converged. It was repeated ad nauseam that the president “just needs some rest”. He had just been for “a routine check-up”, there was occasional reference to an “unscheduled routine check”.
Ms Bongi Ngema-Zuma echoed that her and others’ husband “just needed time to rest”.
The poorly explained point about President Zuma’s health was that he took ill in the course, some sources said, of delivering his report to the NEC. This is an all-important event, essential for a leader who needs to be seen to lead, to turn a page to a make-or-break few years for the ANC.
There was a reference to President Zuma having developed “a pain in the neck”.
The pain meant he lost critical moments to help resuscitate his presidential reputation.
Or perhaps he had a lucky escape.
At the time of him taking ill in the early phases of last Friday’s NEC lekgotla, the spin was that he needed rest in order to come back to lead the equally important cabinet lekgotla, a non-negotiable function.
Next he was unable to return for the cabinet lekgotla. He is now taking on further rest to prepare for the State of the Nation address on Tuesday.
As is appropriate, Ramaphosa was mandated to handle several of the high-profile presidential functions.
He reportedly took over the delivery of Zuma’s report to the NEC, he did the swearing-in of NFP deputy minister Zanele Magwaza-Msibi, he was mandated to lead the cabinet lekgotla.
He will also officiate (downplaying the significance?) at the main Youth Day celebration in Galeshewe tomorrow.
When Ramaphosa delivered the eulogy at the MaMbeki funeral, Jeff Radebe (in his capacity as “chairperson of the Interministerial Committee on State Funerals”) went along, possibly to ensure that Ramaphosa does not grow presidential wings.
It was Ramaphosa as deputy president acting out these roles.
The constitution’s section 90(1) states there will be an acting president of South Africa should the actual president be absent from the country or otherwise unable to perform the duties of the president.
In that case (and in this sequence) there should be an acting president selected from the deputy president, a minister designated by the president, nominated by other members of cabinet, or an MP selected by the Speaker of the national assembly.
By all available indicators President Zuma was indeed unable to perform critical duties at the time.
The Cyril succession factor, however, was the spanner in the works.
Even if fleetingly, the president was not going to let his deputy become acting.
The spin doctors spun the yarn: Number One was working from home. Proof of his ongoing presidential presence came with that flow of statements in the name of the president.
South Africa has had many acting presidents. On most occasions it has been when the president has been out of the country.
Many cabinet members, or some of the deputy presidents, ranging from Kgalema Motlanthe to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, have assumed this role. The difference has been that those cases did not impact on others’ succession-anointment plans.
Several succession reports have surfaced in the past year. They have common strains. They include that those around the resting president want to control succession, and not let the branches decide through uncontrolled nominations and slate-free elections.
The most persuasive arguments have been that an inner circle of Zumaists is working to shelter JZ from more court battles.
It is a time of heightened opposition and civil society vigilance, and political solutions are lessened options.
The NDPP’s 2009 political solution to let arms deal charges fade, enabling Zuma’s ascendancy into the presidency of South Africa post-Polokwane, might no longer be possible, as witnessed around the Nkandla report.
The president’s protectors want to ensure a litigation-free post-West Wing life for the man from Nkandla.
To facilitate this scenario they have two favoured candidates, and Ramaphosa is not one of them.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former wife and current AU chairwoman, is leading the pack, still followed by ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize.
President Zuma has been punting South Africa’s readiness for a woman president for a while now.
This plan is that Dlamini-Zuma will be parachuted into the ANC presidency at the ANC’s next national elective conference.
The argument continues: she will then have stature as a continental political leader. There are reports of her thorough reintegration nowadays into the Zuma clan.
Broadly, it was hoped that the position of a second deputy president of South Africa would immediately dilute Ramaphosa’s standing.
Let’s hope the president will indeed be “re-energised” to deliver the State of the Nation address on Tuesday that both South Africa and the ANC need.
* Susan Booysen is professor at the Wits School of Governance and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.