It had the potential to be one of the most explosive question sessions President Zuma has faced to date, but the ‘teflon don’ proved yet again he will not be beaten before his time.
A mass Cabinet reshuffle, three economic downgrades, damning leaks of private Gupta emails, and the Constitutional Court’s ruling on a secret no confidence vote all simmered beneath the surface of Thursday’s question session to Zuma, his only one this term.
The stage was set for what could have been in Parliament, and the official opposition took the opportunity to let its leader Mmusi Maimane shine alone.
Every single formal and supplementary question posed by the Democratic Alliance came from its leader, a strategy the party had trialed for the first time in March.
Could a change in tact work for the official opposition?
It didn’t matter. Zuma proved once again why he has been nicknamed the ‘teflon don’ by some in the media, beating away questions in familiar jovial spirit, accompanied by the usual laugh track.
“The ANC elected me to be the president. The day it thinks I can’t be the president, it will remove me. The ANC has not done so, so I can’t do so,” he said, confidently.
“The ones who say this president must go, they never made any effort to make me a president.
“So don’t worry. Don’t even worry about anything. Just sit in peace and rest,” he said to AIC leader Mandlenkosi Galo, to applause from many in his caucus.
His cause was helped by the absence of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who continued their tradition of boycotting Zuma’s question sessions citing his “illegitimacy”.
It gave him the freedom to manoeuvre.
Maimane’s first question was about the outstanding 783 corruption charges Zuma has yet to face in court.
“Is it acceptable for the NPA to take 1200 days on the matters I [re]laid against you?” Maimane asked.
Zuma quipped, “I think the honourable member is asking the wrong person. You did not lay the charges against me to investigate.
“What the NPA is doing, I don’t know.
“Why you are asking me? I’m not investigating. You should go to where you made the charges and ask why it is taking long.”
Maimane later in the session moved on to Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who has been implicated in the Gupta emails as alleged middleman between the State and the family.
“Are you also going to help those South African young people who are unemployed and who are not Duduzanes?” Maimane asked.
“You’re being funny to a young man who has gone to school and is now in business. You are isolating a young man simply because he is the son of the president,” Zuma replied.
“There is no law that says he can’t enter business… It’s his business.”
At one point, the exchange got heated to the point that Zuma switched codes to isiZulu, signaling the time to assert his seniority.
“Don’t feed me words. I’m not a child. I don’t want to be fed,” he told Maimane.
Zuma even declared that if the country went to the elections today, the opposition would lose, as the people “loved the ANC”.
“You talk as if you won the metros with a [land]slide majority. You had to talk and beg other parties to help you form this municipality.”
Maimane pointed out in a heated riposte that calls for Zuma to go were not coming from just the minority, but from within Zuma’s own party.
It had gotten under Maimane’s skin, and he ran out of time to finish his question on junk status.
Zuma ultimately summed up the current bind this fifth democratic Parliament faces when it comes to his fitness to hold office.
“You are trying to get a majority you don’t have, by saying secret ballot. I think it’s unfair, because you are trying to increase the majority you don’t have,” he said.
“Maybe it’s your job to find alternative methods; fact of the matter is, you don’t have the majority.”
Zuma is right. The opposition do not have a majority, and in the end, the session concluded with a familiar feeling of “as you were”.
The 25 empty EFF benches stared vacantly back at what the question session could have been, their voluntary absence always felt in the House when Zuma is asserting his authority.
Downgrades, reshuffles and emails are more talking points in the national dialogue rather than nails in any coffin, at least not yet.
With losses of key allies in the security cluster and elsewhere, as well as the ConCourt’s ruling, the president’s position is definitely weakening.
But the hammer blow does not seem like it will come from the benches of Parliament.
Can a secret ballot change that dynamic? We will have to wait and see.
But even ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu stressed on Thursday that the ConCourt’s ruling will not change how the caucus votes, whether Mbete agrees to a secret ballot or not. Zuma will not go this way, was his message.
Eyes stay fixed on the ANC’s elective conference in December, for ANC MPs know what the opposition and country cannot yet accept.
It is from within the ruling party that Zuma’s fate will be decided.
Come December, and barring a significant scandal requiring serious court action, the country will have a clearer view of what trail lies ahead to 2019, in a way that Parliament, unfortunately, just can’t show us at the moment.