Politicians sometimes have an eerie ability to achieve the opposite of their intended goals. This penchant for self-inflicted pain is aggravated by them mostly not realising where they are headed until, to their chagrin, they get there, by which time it’s too late.
By trying to protect the ANC “until Jesus returns”, Zuma almost destroyed it. The party that a decade ago seemed unassailable, within a whisker of a constitution-changing two-thirds majority, lost control of one province and four major cities.
Given widespread loathing towards Zuma, there was a real possibility that in the 2019 general election the ANC would add to that tally of losses in the economic hub of the nation, Gauteng. And that its national vote, hovering around a sorry 55%, might drop further, forcing the ANC into a coalition.
Then along came the DA’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, and the EFF’s leader, Julius Malema. In their determination to torpedo Zuma, these two may have inadvertently assured the ANC of a recovery in electoral fortunes.
Strategically, the outcome with the best electoral prospects for the opposition would have been for Zuma’s “recall” to be delayed as long as possible. To benefit an opposition vote, one that brackets the ANC with the EFF on the left and the DA on the right, the stronger the election day memory of Zuma’s odorous miasma, the better.
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But the opposition pushed too hard and too fast. Malema did so probably because of his visceral loathing of Zuma, the man for whom he once promised to kill for, while Maimane perhaps did so out of a naive belief that South Africa’s problems could be traced to that same, single man.
The two saddled a tiger which has become remarkably powerful in South African politics, that of civic society activism. Through court challenges and judicial motions, through parliamentary obstructionism and grandstanding, and through populist mobilisation, they drove Zuma into a shrinking corner.
That is where they would have liked to keep him for the next 16 months. He would be politically impotent, an object of ridicule, but because still head of state, Zuma would be a constant reminder to voters of what the opposition groupings had rescued them from.
There was nothing wrong with the strategy. Unfortunately for the opposition, the ANC’s instinct for survival, which appeared dormant during the Zuma decade, reasserted itself in the nick of time.
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The long game played by then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa came to sudden fruition. Despite winning only by the narrowest of margins the party presidency against Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Ramaphosa acted with brutal swiftness. Within weeks, the Zuma camp in the ANC’s national executive committee had defected to Ramaphosa, Zuma had been fired, and the National Prosecuting Authority had developed a sudden appetite for munching on Zuma’s corrupt cronies.
This chain of events is not the opposition victory that Maimane and Malema portray it to be. It is an ANC tactical triumph. At a stroke, the Zuma deadweight has been sent plunging to historical oblivion, while the ANC can claim this as proof that the party is capable, when necessary, of ruthless self-calibration. That this is a fiction does not matter, as long the public swallows the lie.
The signs are that it has. Encouraged by the initially fawning responses of both the DA and the EFF to Ramaphosa, there is national public euphoria over the new president that can only benefit the malodorous ANC caravan that comes trundling in his wake.
It is astonishing to hear intelligent, normally critical, traditional DA supporters say that Ramaphosa has renewed their faith in South Africa and that they consequently are tempted to vote ANC. This might just be the political version of Stockholm syndrome – the survival mechanism that causes hostages to develop trust and affection towards their captors.
But it could have devastating effects for the opposition, especially when Ramaphosa’s imminent cabinet reshuffle gets rid of the faces South Africans have come to despise.
Arguably, this will hurt the EFF most, since it only came into existence because of Malema’s fallout with Zuma. Ramaphosa has deftly drawn the sting of its calls for land seizure by promising “orderly” expropriation without compensation (whatever that might mean), while its other populist platform of fee-free tertiary education is also now ANC policy.
While any diminishment in the incendiary, racial populism of the EFF is to be welcomed, the EFF’s decline would weaken South Africa’s democracy as a whole. If the EFF is eventually re-absorbed into the ANC, it will again shift that party towards the hard left, while collapsing the DA’s tenuous control of the newly captured metropoles, where EFF support is critical.
The DA and EFF have been brilliant in getting rid of Zuma, but they may have blundered badly by allowing the ANC more than enough time to reclothe the rather tacky models in its electoral shop window. We’ll know soon enough, when the voters come shopping.
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