Opposition parties this week led thousands in unprecedented protest to demand that Jacob Zuma step down as president. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
It’s not that the president loves the job too much, but he has to stay on long enough to influence the ANC succession, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

‘Will these marches force Jacob Zuma to resign as president of the republic?” This has been a recurring question in the last two weeks.

Before one even answers, another one quickly follows: “What happens if he doesn’t resign?”

While seemingly triggered by curiosity, such questions also betray a certain level of doubt over the effectiveness of mass mobilisation to drive a sitting president out of office. It has never happened before in our 22 years of democracy, which warrants misgivings over its possibility now.

And, the pessimism is probably correct. It will take more than marches to force Zuma of out office. He’s resolute to remain in office. It’s not that Zuma loves the job too much, but he has to stay on long enough to influence the succession of the ANC presidency in December.

Given all the manner of legal problems he’s likely to face, Zuma will possibly need a presidential pardon in future. He reckons that his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, may just be the person to pardon him.

This explains why Zuma is currently on a campaign trail. Earlier last month he showed up at regional conferences in Port Elizabeth and East London to support his charges there. In Port Elizabeth, Zuma even made a point of congratulating Andile Lungisa’s election as regional chairperson, even though knowing that his candidature was in breach of the party’s constitution.

He went further to urge party members to accept the outcome, while ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was threatening Lungisa with disciplinary action. (Lungisa was subsequently forced to step down by the ANC’s national executive committee.)

Hardly any significant event takes place in KwaZulu-Natal without Zuma’s attendance. At times his unexpected appearance at some of the events have even disoriented Zweli Mkhize, who’s also hoping to use KwaZulu-Natal to launch his candidature for one of the top two positions at the helm of the ANC.

Zuma’s resistance, therefore, is not unexpected. So too is that of his defenders. Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane’s conduct is classic of the beneficiaries of a patron-client network. Zuma has allowed them to indulge on state resources and tolerated their incompetence.

Mokonyane’s department is reportedly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, while Dlamini has outsourced payment of social grants to “white monopoly capital”. Five years ago, she had committed to the state paying grants, but later reneged on the commitment, preferring “white people” to do the job instead.

That’s how Zuma builds loyalty - through patronage and overlooking impropriety.

Neither Dlamini nor Mokonyane would serve under a diligent and ethical president. Another president would even send the Hawks to snoop around Mokonyane’s department to find out what happened to the money she was given to install taps; or probe why Dlamini prefers to entrust the livelihoods of the “poorest of the poor” to a white-owned company instead of our “progressive state”.

Dlamini and Mokonyane are now returning the favour. They’re shouting the loudest in the ongoing cacophony of noise.

Not only are the two ladies rowdiest, but also most ludicrous. Mokonyane said the fallen rand simply needs picking up. She even suggested that driving investors out was a good idea, so that we can invite them back on our terms. Mokonyane simply doesn’t have anything smart to say. None can ever explain away the harm Zuma has caused to our economy. Because there’s no reasonable explanation, buffoonery became an appealing option.

For ministers of government to reduce themselves to clowns shows desperation. In light of their notoriety, they know that they’re unlikely to be appointed by another president. One fears what the incumbents are likely to do when they become anxious that they’re running of time.

History tells us that pilfering burgeons on the brink of change of power. Change threatens their future livelihood, which they safeguard through “javelin-throwing” - that is building a nest. We’re unlikely to be exempted from this law of history. That’s something to watch out for.

While the incumbents hatch plans for their future nests, the protests are unlikely to let up. Protests need a constant spark and organisational network to sustain them. Zuma provides a ceaseless spark - he’s a gift that keeps on giving. He has too many legal problems and costs coming up in the next few months. All these will remind the public of Zuma’s misfit for office, infuriating them sufficiently to remain on the streets. A feeling that the president is contemptuous of public sentiments fuels popular rage.

Unity among the various organisations involved in the protests remains paramount. So far it has held. They’ve resisted taking individual credit for the protests, and are united by the immediacy of the crisis and its potential to inflict collective harm.

Even Themba Godi, who has made a habit of siding with the ANC in Parliament, has joined the protests. This is an impressive affirmation of patriotism. The country matters over the party.

Protecting the country is in the interests of parties. These protests are warding off political decay and ruin. Abuse of power and manipulation of institutions inhibit fair play. They even enable harassment, if not assassination, of political opponents.

Mismanagement limits the volume of resources available to opposition parties, as they gradually ascend to power, to provide service delivery to the citizenry. Once the integrity of the republic and its resources are protected, opposition parties can resort to their habitual bickering.

Not only is the unity of opposition parties in their self-interest, but it also deals a blow to Jacob Zuma’s manoeuvring. It disproves his remarks that the protests are motivated by racism. Crowds have been remarkably diverse. This is the first time, and it’s a breakthrough that makes a repeat possible. In time, hopefully, a new consciousness, underpinned by non-racial protest and activism, will develop into a permanent feature of the republic.

Prolonged protests are likely to widen the cracks in the ANC. Scenes of massive protest remind the party of the pounding that awaits it in 2019. It knows the beating is coming. That’s what the party got in 2014 and 2016 for similar behaviour.

And the 2019 decline may even cost it national power. There’s no reason why the ANC shouldn’t lose 10% in 2019, when it lost 8% in 2016. The realisation of the imminence of losing office may embolden some to move against Zuma. Already one MP, Makhosi Khoza, has broken ranks, and many more may follow, as expression of public disgust at the president’s mismanagement continues.

Of course, a motion of no confidence in the president may end this nighmare. This might happen by month-end or early mid-May due to a secret ballot in Parliament. Neither parliamentary rules nor the constitution prescribes the use of a secret ballot in the ordinary business of the National Assembly. But, the Constitutional Court has agreed to hear an application for the exercise of a secret ballot. It is likely to affirm that the Speaker does have discretionary powers to allow for one.

Baleka Mbete may possibly allow for a secret ballot, freeing some ANC MPs to vote against Zuma without facing retaliation. That’s still uncertain, and may not materialise.

What is certain, though, is that mass mobilisation brings down abusive governments. Their very intransigence fuels popular resistance. Zuma will be no exception.

* Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent