Will he stay or will he go... President Jacob Zuma is due to deliver his State of the Nation Address on February 8. Last year's shameful scenes in the House may well pale into insignificance if Zuma fails to disappear quietly into the night. File picture: Sumaya Hisham/EPA

Next Thursday, if last year was anything to go by, the centre of Cape Town will come to a standstill. Overhead there’ll be the clatter of helicopter blades and the whine of their turbines. 

On the ground there’ll be crowd-control fencing hermetically sealing off the parliamentary precinct and police, lots of them, all armed to the teeth, intimidating in their mutant ninja turtle body armour.

On the other side of the fence, the angry masses, mostly dressed in red, will be taunting them, trying to break through.

It’s been like this since 2015 when the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) disrupted President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address - and were forcibly evicted in a punch up that belonged more at Newlands than the hallowed halls of the House.

Every year it has got progressively worse.

Last year was the nadir. Tear gas wafted through the public galleries as the EFF were forcibly ejected, culminating in a total walk-out by the opposition last year, leaving Zuma to blithely present his state of the nation totally at odds with the dystopia playing out outside.

This year was supposed to be different. Zuma wasn’t even supposed to still be president, if you listened to the narrative that has been gaining traction ever since his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory in the race for party president at Nasrec last December.

Ramaphosa won the elective battle, but only just, against his rival Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. When the votes were tallied for all six of the top ANC leadership positions, that margin became even clearer - Ramaphosa and his slate were ahead by only 100 votes, something that immediately became clear in the schism of the compilation of the top six. The unity he preached in his inaugural January 8 statement in East London last month suggested a shift in the balance of power towards him, underscored by the loyal local crowd of party faithful booing Zuma five times at the Absa Stadium.

The scales seemed to tilt even further in Ramaphosa’s favour as he overhauled the entire Eskom board before he left for Davos and the annual World Economic Forum. There he appeared to succeed in his wooing of potential foreign investors and the international bankers who are jittery about out debt, turning the wheel on the junking of our credit rating.

Back at home, a rejuvenated National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was starting to do what it was supposed to, getting preservation orders against international companies who had benefited from the capture of the giant power utility and - more pertinently - acting on a dairy scheme in a dusty Free State town, that was tiny in comparison but gigantic in its potential consequences.

Suddenly, the Guptas - South Africa’s favourite bogeymen after their temerity to avoid OR Tambo’s arrival halls and start landing their wedding guests at an Air Force base normally reserved for visiting presidents - were directly involved, as was a cabinet minister - the former Free State agriculture MEC Mosebenzi Zwane, controversially elevated to national mining supremo in 2015 despite having no track record in the sector.

More importantly, erstwhile Free State premier turned ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule was tied in, not directly at this stage, but definitely through his son - just as Zuma has been tied to the Guptas through his son Duduzane.

As Ramaphosa preached unity, with an undertone of mercy to the vanquished, unequivocally banning any humiliating of Zuma, the talk turned to not if but when Zuma would leave office. He wouldn’t be the one delivering SONA 18. There were those who hedged their bets. SONA, they said, would be Zuma’s swansong, his opportunity to address the nation a last time, reflect on his tenure and announce his retirement.

Read: Whoever is president on February 8 will deliver SONA - Parliament

President Zuma will deliver SONA

The problem is, no one seemed to get the memo. Deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte certainly hadn’t earlier this week, nor her boss, Magashule. They were adamant, there had been no talk about Zuma stepping down, on the contrary he had to see his term of office out, despite the National Working Committee of the ANC actually mandating the top six to have discussions with Zuma about his exit - of which there are three options: voluntarily step down, face a vote of no confidence in Parliament and/ or be impeached and lose everything.

The split ran deep. Party deputy president DD Mabuza had stuck to the new script at the weekend, preaching unity and foregrounding Ramaphosa during his visit to Limpopo at the weekend. Down in KZN Magashule slyly poked fun at Ramaphosa’s links with McDonalds, kept speaking of Dlamini Zuma (who was in the audience) as if she and Ramaphosa were of equal stature, called on loyalists to endure the next five years until the next elective conference and turned the entire NPA Estina dairy farm probe into a vendetta against him continuing as SG.

There was certainly no talk from the man himself going quietly into the good night. On the contrary, almost on the cusp of the 11th hour, Zuma’s lawyers responded to the NPA’s deadline to show good cause why the national director of public prosecutions should not reinstate corruption charges against him - raising a whole slew of other issues, particularly preferential treatment for the president, since for everyone else, close of business on the last day of the month would normally be 5pm, not 9pm.

The ANC, when it has appeared to speak as one, has been determined to portray the person who occupies the Union Buildings as a party deployee, and, in so doing, reinforce a perception that policy is created at Luthuli House, the Joburg party headquarters, and merely executed from the country’s capital.

The point is moot, when the party president and the country’s president are one and the same person.

As of December 18, that hasn’t been the case. There are two centres of power: Zuma is also hell bent on showing he’s no lame duck president either, as his world effectively starts tumbling about his ears; from the ousting of the kleptocrats at Eskom, the money chase in Vrede and the spectacle of Lucky Montana throwing every one under the bus at the ongoing parliamentary enquiry into the rail debacle at Prasa.

He’s not just fighting back, he’s given full notice of what he can do, when he goes off script - like he did at the opening ceremony of the ANC’s elective conference on December 16 - promising free tertiary education for the poor, effectively announcing a policy shift, not just wrong-footing his cabinet colleagues and advisers but leaving them scrambling desperately to contain the equivalent of a lit match casually tossed into a tinderbox.

Ramaphosa has managed that with aplomb thus far, particularly in East London with the faithful and then shedding his party golf shirt for a lounge suit with the bankers in Davos. The next few days might test his legendary negotiating skills - and quiet steely resolve - to the limit.

But that’s just inside the ANC.

The opposition are hard at work trying to reset the agenda for next Thursday, both the EFF and the DA - which has provided the new textbook definition of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory through the Cape Town water crisis - have written to the Speaker, Baleka Mbete, to request a vote of no confidence before Zuma even takes to the box on Thursday night - if he hasn’t been recalled by then.

This would be the ninth no confidence vote that he has faced in nine years. EFF leader Julius Malema believes conditions are far different to last August when Zuma survived a secret ballot to oust him - even though 26 ANC MPs voted against him. On Thursday, Mbete and her NCOP counterpart Thandi Modise announced that SONA 2018 will go ahead.

On Friday, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa called all the opposition parties together to try to have the opening of Parliament postponed while Zuma is still president.

This weekend there are more public protests planned for the weekend for the citizenry to take to the streets and voice their dissatisfaction.

Only one thing is guaranteed - if SONA 2018 does go ahead on Thursday night, with Zuma still president, last year’s shameful scenes in the House could well pale into insignificance in this heady mix of competing opportunism and desperation.

If the volatility of the rand on the international exchange rate is any indicator, we are living in a virtual game of snakes and ladders.

Each throw of the dice either advances us several moves up the ladder, or slithers us back several paces - depending on who throws the dice.

The only question is whether February 8, 2018, will have the same effect as August 15, 1985, when PW Botha failed to cross his Rubicon.

This time though, blood could well run on the streets - and not just in Cape Town.

* Kevin Ritchie is Independent Media’s Gauteng regional editor. 

Saturday Star