(File photo) Bheki Cele and President Jacob Zuma.

First came speculation about a possible cabinet reshuffle, then followed President Jacob Zuma’s stalling over whether Bheki Cele had been fired as national commissioner.

On Tuesday, he brought finality to these. Well, not quite.

Listening to Zuma showing Cele the door, he sounded doubtful, like a reluctant principal acting against a recalcitrant pupil. Zuma generously told us of Cele’s “unquestionable commitment” to his work, that he “led from the front” and “brought much-needed passion, energy, expertise and focus” that had brought “visible reduction in crime levels”.

Reluctantly, it appeared, Zuma fired Cele, but quickly gave us a hint that this is not the end of Cele with this statement: “General Cele still has a lot to contribute to the country, given his experience and commitment to making South Africa a better place for all each day.”

Why would anybody feel the need to praise someone not worthy of their high-profile job; someone they had just fired? Zuma did not have to, yet he did. Perhaps a signal that a diplomatic posting is in the offing? We know how the ANC takes care of those who shine and stink at the same time. Let’s wait.

By praising Cele and mentioning his possible contribution in the future, Zuma tactically, less overtly, planted a seed in our minds. What this does is show that Cele, who threatened court action to clear his name, is disarmed from acting against Zuma pending Zuma’s decision to redeploy him. He could still act against Judge Jake Moloi (who recommended Cele’s removal), but not against Zuma – which point is crucial for Zuma as leader of the ANC.

So Zuma, with panache, managed to project himself as someone who wished not to act against Cele, someone pleased with Cele’s achievements, but someone whose hand was forced by the Moloi report.

In so doing, Zuma achieves two things: he succeeds in removing from Cele a potent victimhood that worked wonders on Zuma’s path to the Union Buildings. Secondly, his action tells us of Zuma’s astute political management of ANC battles waged in KwaZulu-Natal.

This week it was reported that the ANC executive committee in KZN was displeased with reports that Cele would be fired. They wanted to know if that was so and why, or how Cele would be redeployed for the sake of peace. The KZN ANC constituency is important for Zuma because he desperately needs a united home base in the period leading to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December.

Some callers on Talk Radio 702 said yesterday that Zuma’s spirited campaign to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected AU chairperson had nothing to do with his zeal for women empowerment, but his fear that his challengers – mainly Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – could use the hugely popular Dlamini-Zuma to make the point that Zuma is not the best the ANC could get from the kingdom and, importantly, that the idea of having Zuma removed is not an anti-Zulu campaign. With this in mind, to fire Cele without praise, or an option to redeploy him, is to mobilise the KZN constituency against himself. And Zuma’s too smart for that, is he not?

The Star