Could Zuma be planning an ambush?

And so another ANC NEC meeting has come and gone, playing its part in this noisy year of political theatre. There were rumours and counter rumours and people as well as the financial markets got their hopes up, thinking that maybe this time No 1 would finally see the writing on the wall– or more appropriately the emails on the I-pads. But it seems the writing was not clear enough and in the end our Teflon President seems to be more entrenched than ever.

There has been a lot of talk recently that Zuma is under more pressure than at any time previously. There is clearly an onslaught on him from all directions. In the last few months alone the courts, Parliament, sections of the NEC, the Alliance, the churches, academics etc. have all come out with statements and reports, many calling on Zuma to resign.

So given his insistence that Zulu men don’t stress, I began to wonder if it is all starting to get to him or whether he is immune to this pressure. I put the question to a psychologist friend of mine. His answer (which I will get to) was interesting, but in the course of the conversation we started to talk about aggression and how it is playing out in the political terrain.

Apparently psychologists have identified three main forms of aggression of which two are prevalent in the political arena. (In case you are wondering, the third one involves males fighting over females, which can be very relevant amongst individual politicians, but on a more macro scale that can be discarded for now. )

The first form of aggression is defensive. If we compare it to the animal kingdom it is, for example, when you push a dog into a corner. He/she will immediately feel threatened and growl, show teeth, raise hair, bark and even bite. There is little, if any, strategy involved. Just sheer panicked induced anger and desperation. A political example would be Donald Trump’s blustering on Twitter every time he is put under pressure.

The second form is referred to as predatory aggression. Anyone who has ever owned a cat will know what I am talking about here. All cats, no matter how domesticated, are expert hunters and they all follow the same strategy. They will stalk their prey with the patience of Job, sitting without any movement for ages. They will even close their eyes, pretending to have lost interest. But in reality they remain super alert. Just when, for example, the mouse feels it is safe to make a move, the cat will jump on it with lightning speed and cruelty. I have heard cats purr with the thrill of the chase, showing that they don’t only hunt for food, but because they enjoy it.

So what has this got to do with politics? What the psychologists tell me, is that President Zuma’s political actions are prime examples of predatory aggression. He is an expert strategist who for years have been using his superior battle skills to climb to the top and is not planning to descend from the throne any time soon. Patience is his strength, waiting for people to make their moves, before he makes his counter moves. At times it might look as if he is losing the battle or even losing interest, but that is all part of the stealth strategy he uses. And remember the famous laugh? Nothing to do with nervousness, the clever people tell me, he is truly having fun.

Recently there has been a lot of excitement about the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign is finally starting to pick up speed. Some senior anti-Zuma ANC members have even said to me that they believe Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s race is dead. “Where is she?” one asked. “You don’t hear anything from her or that side!” And this is exactly what worries me. President Zuma and the Zuma camp is too quiet for my liking.

Which brings me to another nature analogy. I have often been told that most dangerous thing about a wounded lion is that it will trap you. Hunters say that if they follow the blood spoor of a lion they always need to be super alert, because lions are known to circle you and suddenly attack or ambush you from behind.

The general feeling is that Zuma is being constantly wounded by all the revelations and court cases. Yet, he and his side seem unfazed – calmly rejecting all attacks as nonsense, fabricated or sub judice. It seems they are so confident about their ability to ultimately win that they are happy to patiently let the other side make their moves, before they pounce.

Which makes me wonder if there is a political ambush coming? Is it possible that the media, analysts and politicians are so focused on the metaphorical blood spoor that they are forgetting to keep an eye on a possible trap? And if there is an ambush coming, what would it look like? I can only guess, but making the country ungovernable, damaging disclosures (truthful or otherwise) about the other side or rigging the elections all seem plausible options.

Whatever it may be, we should be alert about the various possibilities. Reports from the NEC meeting over the weekend suggested that the President was furious and warned those against him to be careful, since “he will not stay quiet”.

That sounds ominous to me, because even though Zuma and his camp are at times looking almost bored, I have no doubt that they are ready to jump the moment they sense they can go in for the political kill.

And if after all of that you are still wondering whether the psychologist thinks Zuma is feeling the pressure, his answer was: “Yes, but he is channelling it into devising a strategy to defeat his opponents, which he would find exciting rather than stressful.”

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.