ANC ducked the best moment to stop Jacob Zuma

Supporters sing and chant during a recruitment drive in Tembisa for the newly launched Umkhonto weSizwe party backed by Jacob Zuma, on Sunday. Picture: AFP

Supporters sing and chant during a recruitment drive in Tembisa for the newly launched Umkhonto weSizwe party backed by Jacob Zuma, on Sunday. Picture: AFP

Published Jan 23, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

The handful of ANC supporters who have not succumbed to the cult of Jacob Zuma that is threatening to destroy the party at the polls cling to one last hope.

They are crossing their fingers that the ex-president’s march to his uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party’s nomination as its face on the ballot paper will come to a halt following the Electoral Commission’s announcement last Wednesday that Zuma cannot be a public representative or the president of the country after this year’s general elections because of his criminal record.

But it is a thin hope. Even if the Constitution bars anyone convicted and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment without an option of a fine from holding public office, the battles ahead are on terrain far more tricky for the ANC and congenial to Zuma.

The Constitution allows every citizen, including Zuma, to make political choices, including the right to form a political party, participate in the activities of a party, recruit members and campaign for a political party or cause.

Following a string of consultations with various splinter groups in which alliances might emerge before the elections, the one-month-old MK party looked to announce Zuma as its presidential candidate at the end of this month.

News reports show Zuma’s warm reception in the communities he is campaigning in. When all factors are combined, the picture prompts a question that confounds the nostalgic ANC supporters and baffles the rest of the country.

Given all that he has said and all that he has done, given all he is, why do thousands of South Africans who have far been bold enough to voice their opinion publicly want Zuma to be their next president?

Any answer to that question has to begin with the weakness of Zuma’s opponents, mainly in the ANC and then on the fringes of the opposition parties. When Cyril Ramaphosa took over the presidency in 2018, I had not reckoned on the renowned negotiator being astonishingly awkward with the basics of retail politics: making decisions as an executive authority and fulfilling promises.

It has been painful to watch the ANC ignoring Zuma’s divisiveness as a better strategy than expelling him from the party for fear that he would cry a victim and give and exploit expulsion in his election campaign.

More important, though, is the strategic miscalculation. To preserve party unity and garner electoral support, the ANC offered a version of Brett Murray’s 2010 “The Spear” painting without the naked Zuma. The party has been picking fights with the same culture-war targets as the former president – corruption, racism, businesses and the media – but with more chaos and lunacy, without charm and charisma. The trouble is that it makes the ANC too Zuma-like for the supporters eager to move on and not Zuma-like enough for those mesmerised by his political manipulation. The latter group is not looking for Zuma-like; they are getting it in full-strength originally in the MK party.

Almost all of the ANC leadership share the most significant failure, including the alliance partners.

They dared not make the direct case against him, for fear of antagonising the (many) supporters who love him, including those who gathered outside the courts to cheer him. They tiptoed around his obvious and disqualifying flaws – including his implied association with the July upheavals, also known as the July 2021 riots, the Zuma unrest or Zuma riots. Each ANC leader hoped someone else would take on the task, knocking out Zuma in a cadre mission that would keep the party intact and maintain its historic electoral success.

It was a classic collective action problem. The ANC alliance leadership would have benefited if all had combined and prevailed against Zuma in the early years of his party and country’s presidency. The party’s secretary- general, Fikile Mbalula, is edging towards that message, but it has come as time passes.

Zuma has been aided, too, by many other opponents he hopes to face in these elections. And yet, an uncomfortable truth has to be met. That he is gaining the upper hand over the ANC on who ends up in the Union Buildings is not only down to the weakness of others but also a product of his political strengths. He has a skill unmatched by most prominent figures in the South African political landscape: the ability to craft a narrative that millions believe. He has, for example, turned what should have been a terminal blow – facing multiple prosecutions and criminal charges –into a winning story, one in which he is a victim of, and a courageous fighter against, a vindictive white monopoly capitalist establishment engaged in an offensive war, confecting bogus allegations to keep him away from power.

That story is false, but it has persuaded hundreds of thousands nationwide.

Of course, it is laughable for Zuma, president for almost two terms, to claim he wants to “come back to fix things”. But that does not stop millions of SA voters from looking back fondly on the fewer days of electricity blackouts and low food and petrol prices of the Zuma years. Memories of the corrupt scandals and creeping maladministration are fading.

His opponents are weaker than they needed, and still need to be; he is more potent than many can bear to admit, and the core issue of any election – the poorly managed economy and political power – may favour him. For all those reasons, Zuma has a plausible, even probable, chance to determine the path and identity of who ends up in the Union Buildings.

The best chance to stop him has passed. It came in August 2023, when he returned to prison after a court of law ruled that his parole was invalid, only to be released within two hours under a new programme to reduce prison overcrowding. That was the moment, but the ANC ducked it.

Had that happened, Zuma would have been unable to conduct an election campaign rubbishing the ANC legacy on the gravesite of liberation fighters such as Moses Mabhida. He would not have planned visits to the graves of Peter “Dambuza” Malada, Collins Chabane and others to the dismay of those whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for our liberation.

Zuma has benefited from that cowardice, from that perennial belief that someone else will eventually deal with Zuma. Well, eventually is now – and it may be too late.

Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times