x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Has Zuma harnessed a political lion?

Thabo Mbeki's dismissal is the culmination of a long power struggle and leaves Jacob Zuma the victor.

The ANC president Jacob Zuma, left, joins the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu to honour the birth of the founder of the Zulu nation King Shaka.
The ANC president Jacob Zuma, left, joins the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu to honour the birth of the founder of the Zulu nation King Shaka.

As South Africa's new president, Kgalema Motlanthe, was voted into office by parliament, the most powerful man in the country watched from the gallery. Jacob Zuma, the populist leader of the African National Congress, which had just sacked the previous leader, Thabo Mbeki, was in a jovial mood. Smiling broadly, he rose to lead the applause as Mr Motlanthe's victory, already a foregone conclusion given the ANC's dominance of the legislature, was announced. Mr Zuma seemingly had good reason to be so content. Mr Mbeki's dismissal was the culmination of a years-long power struggle between the two men and left Mr Zuma the undisputed victor. But the events of the past week have fundamentally changed the balance of power in Africa's most important economy. The ripples and repercussions will reverberate for weeks, months and possibly years to come, in ways that may not suit Mr Zuma quite so well. In time, South African politics may well become rather more fluid and unpredictable sooner than would normally have been expected, where following the standard postcolonial model the party of liberation rules unchallenged for decades. There is no doubt that for now the ANC's current hierarchy is firmly in the ascendant. By recalling Mr Mbeki a few months before the end of his term, Luthuli House, the party headquarters in Johannesburg, has unmistakably asserted itself over Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential residence up the road in Pretoria. While the party remains in government - which it will for the foreseeable future - no leader will ever again be able to ignore it in the way Mr Mbeki did. Effectively, internal party structures now carry more weight than parliament when it comes to holding the executive to account. For the moment, that will suit Mr Zuma very well - Mr Motlanthe, the ANC's deputy leader, is a loyal servant of the organisation, and the plan is for him to keep the presidential seat warm for the party boss, who will take over after a general election next year. "Kgalema is a caretaker president," Mr Zuma made clear. Despite the proclamations of unity behind the new man, a substantial minority of the ANC has been alienated by the dismissal, and left feeling marginalised within the party. The possibility of a breakaway is the subject of rampant rumours, with sources saying an announcement is imminent. Such a grouping would be unlikely to challenge the ANC for overall national power - there is still immense popular allegiance to the movement throughout the country, and those leaving it run the risk of consigning themselves to political oblivion. But 40 per cent of ANC delegates backed Mr Mbeki for the party leadership last year, and in provinces where his support is concentrated, there could be sufficient defections to significantly weaken the party. Its margin of victory in next year's vote would suddenly look much less predictable, and its hold on power in certain provinces - particularly the Mbeki strongholds of Western Cape, Eastern Cape and the North-West - would be open to question. It is not a position the ANC is used to, and it can be expected to pull out all the stops when the election campaign begins in earnest. Furthermore, Mr Zuma's own ambitions remain far from fulfilled. The internal ANC coalition he built to oust Mr Mbeki is nowhere near as united in supporting him as it was in opposing his predecessor for the party leadership. Grave doubts remain over corruption allegations that hang over him in connection with a multi-billion-dollar arms deal, despite the formal dismissal of charges, and his personal popularity within the organisation is not reflected to the same extent in the wider population, scoring only 3.89 out of 10 in a favourability rating in an opinion poll for South Africa's Sunday Times this week. Mr Motlanthe, a soft-spoken, left-leaning intellectual, is seen as rather more presidential, and commentators have begun to raise the possibility that pressure will grow for him to be made a longer-term president than Mr Zuma planned, particularly if he makes a success of his brief term in office. On that reading, Mr Motlanthe would be the technocrat running the government as an administrator, while Mr Zuma would be the popular quasi-president projecting himself around the country from his base in the party. The idea has echoes of the pattern established in the country's first democratic government, which was largely run by Mr Mbeki as deputy president, with the head of state, Nelson Mandela, taking on a more symbolic, uplifting role - but it could create a new factionalism within the ANC's top tier. "There's no doubt that there's a section of the new ANC leadership who would much prefer Motlanthe to Zuma," said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. "I think the tide has turned against them at this stage, but there's great jumpiness among a section of the leadership that the great prize will be snatched away from Jacob Zuma." Mr Motlanthe stresses his own lack of ambition, and that he will obey the will of the party. But Prof Friedman added: "He's going to be in a very difficult position. "He's perfectly well aware there are people watching him the whole time." Mr Zuma himself was warned about the possibility as he sat in his eyrie above the parliamentary chamber. As congratulations to the victor were offered by all the parties in parliament, Pieter Mulder, leader of the far-right Freedom Front Plus, turned to look up at him and told him a story of two Afrikaner trekkers in the old days, who one night heard lions roaring around their camp, quickly harnessed their oxen, and fled. "When the sun came up that morning they saw that in their haste they had harnessed seven oxen and one of the lions," he said. "The two looked at each other and said: 'It was easy to hastily harness the lion in the dark, but how do we now unharness it?' "The ANC harnessed Mr Motlanthe as a lion today in the dark and current crisis. "Does the ANC also know how to unharness a lion, should it be necessary?" he asked. sberger@thenational.ae