President Jacob Zuma has gone from leading a coalition of the wounded to propping up a company of desperados, writes Craig Dodds.
For a while after Nenegate and then the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla, followed by the revelations about the Gupta family’s freedom to offer cabinet positions as if they were dishing out ice lollies, it seemed the signs were flashing furious neon.
Surely not even Zuma, the champion survivor, could outwit, outplay and outlast the circling contenders this time?
But, as he had done countless times before when seemingly knocked out cold, Zuma dusted himself off, struggled to his feet and started swinging as though he’d never been down.
His lieutenants went on the attack.
The Hawks went after Pravin Gordhan, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane went after the banks for daring to drop the Guptas, and Hlaudi Motsoeneng declared the public broadcaster a Zuma safe house.
There were whispers about an imminent cabinet purge that would scatter Zuma’s enemies to the wind.
But then the electorate went and showed Zuma the door they had kicked open for him to walk out of, and the president’s aura of invincibility began to crumble.
He went into hiding, and denial, while his party grappled with the shock.
The problem for Zuma is that the more evident his grip on the ANC becomes – via his domination of its national executive committee – the more tenuous becomes the party’s grip on the loyalty of its supporters.
Its frequent enforced forays into the moral wilderness on his behalf, and the increasingly bizarre antics of his lieutenants – enter Motsoeneng, stage right – have cost the ANC more political capital than even a nuclear patronage motherlode could possibly repay.
Zuma has gone from leading a coalition of the wounded to propping up a company of desperados, and who would want to go to war with the likes of Kebby Maphatsoe, Zwane, Motsoeneng, Bathabile Dlamini and Collen Maine standing behind them, with a high probability of being felled by friendly fire.
His other former allies have either fled for cover or are openly sharpening their blades, while his impact players in the state, from Nomgcobo Jiba and Richard Mdluli to Mthandazo Ntlemeza, are under legal siege.
The Guptas are pulling up anchors with undignified haste.
Cosatu has withered in his toxic embrace to an empty shell and the legitimacy of the ANC’s Youth, Women’s and Veterans leagues has seeped away under manufactured leadership.
The possibility of being demoted to the opposition benches now looms for the ANC in 2019, unless it can find a way of excising its president without losing too much blood.
While he maintains a familiar public insouciance – denying at every opportunity that the election results were a reflection on his leadership – Zuma’s actions in recent weeks tell a different story.
When Zwane claimed his harebrained scheme to subject the banks to an inquisition had the backing of the cabinet, he was swiftly put in his place by the Presidency, even though Zuma was abroad at the time.
And when the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed Motsoeneng’s bid to keep the job he should never have had in the first place, the Presidency pronounced itself in favour of upholding the judgment.
Cynics would say there would be nothing new in Zuma paying lip-service to the law while giving a nod and a wink to the unlawful practices of his cronies.
But the consequences this time may be real.
It’s hard to see Zwane’s banking sector witch-hunt going anywhere after the president shot it down in flames, and Motsoeneng suddenly finds he is no longer royal game in Parliament, with the ANC caucus seemingly having read Zuma’s statement on the matter as a licence to go hunting.
Equally telling was Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor’s suggestion this week that the nuclear procurement, which her Energy counterpart, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, had signalled would get under way yesterday, could not proceed before the government’s Rip van Winkle energy plan had been dragged kicking and screaming into the present.
It is true Zwane, Motsoeneng and Eskom’s nuclear Pharisees continue to trip the light fantastic, flaunting their immunity from reason as though bathed in divine authority.
And ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu has railed against the Motsoeneng tragicomedy before, to no avail.
If the SABC tyrant’s claim to magical powers holds any truth, it is in the sense that the ANC MPs on Parliament’s communications committee, not to mention Minister Faith Muthambi, have succumbed to his spell.
It will be fascinating to watch them on Wednesday, when the SABC board is to attempt an explanation for the lunatic reappointment of Motsoeneng, to see whether Mthembu has succeeded in shaking them loose from zombiehood.
Meanwhile, the ANC’s national executive committee meets this weekend, and Zwane’s insistence that he spoke with the cabinet’s authority on the banks – effectively calling the president, who said otherwise, a liar – is bound to set off a chorus calling for his head.
It may be that Zuma, having noticed for the first time just how deranged his lieutenants are beginning to sound, has chosen to lie low for a bit and leave them to face the music alone, in the hopes of living to fight another day.
Or he may have calculated that the stalemate in the ANC which has led to the shelving of plans for an early elective conference is only a superficial equilibrium, and that underneath the ground is giving way.
He may finally have seen the writing on the wall, and realised that co-operating with his opposition in the ANC is now his best hope for survival, or at least a dignified exit.
In which case Zwane, Motsoeneng, Jiba and others are about to find themselves staring helplessly at the wheels of an oncoming bus.