Falling short: ANC veterans such as, from left, Sheila Sisulu, Frank Chikane, Cheryl Carolus, Murphy Morobe and Wally Serote who oppose President Jacob Zuma’s reign, should have lobbied MPs who will decide Zuma’s fate in the vote of no confidence. Picture: THE TIMES
Falling short: ANC veterans such as, from left, Sheila Sisulu, Frank Chikane, Cheryl Carolus, Murphy Morobe and Wally Serote who oppose President Jacob Zuma’s reign, should have lobbied MPs who will decide Zuma’s fate in the vote of no confidence. Picture: THE TIMES

Many South Africans believe President Jacob Zuma is a fool. They mock his hesitant English. They scorn his irrational pronouncements and laugh at his lack of ability in simple arithmetic. His shortcomings are plain to see and difficult to hide.

However, he is no fool when leveraging and executing power — he pours scorn on those who oppose him. He has shown himself to be a grandmaster on the chessboard of the ANC’s internal politics. His ability to read and deploy the ANC organogram of power is unparallelled. He knows which position holds what amount of power. After he puts his people in position, he leverages them — and the power they enjoy — to do his bidding.

He has done so in the ANC and the government.

His biggest challenge is that he has often put the wrong person in the right position to do his bidding and help him control power and influence. Asking pawns to do the work of knights and bishops has been his downfall, as Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini has illustrated — although she is loyal to Zuma, her incompetence outweighs her usefulness.

This leveraging of power, positions and people is not unique to Zuma. Politicians in power worldwide do the same thing. It would have been unusual if SA’s president had not used tools at his disposal to promote and secure his own agenda. This canny political operator knows that for all the bleating and barking of the opposition, he cannot be unseated without the help of members of his own party.

Yet, with the unions, communists, veterans and stalwarts of the ANC finding their voices, Zuma’s position as president of the country is no longer as strong as it once was. The whispers in corners have swelled into a choir of unhappiness in the party he leads. Will this internal revolt be enough to unsettle the king? No. Those who oppose Zuma could have learnt valuable lessons from him about the execution of power.

They should have focused all their efforts on the 435 MPs that control Zuma’s fate in Parliament, taking a page out of how the defeated Democratic Party in the US managed to out-manoeuvre the Republican Party that controlled nearly all the levers of power in the battle over Obamacare.

Those opposed to Zuma should have harassed, lobbied and shouted at ANC MPs at every opportunity.

The rebellion could have worked if the anger was felt at branch meetings and the imbizos called by individual MPs.

It would have stood a chance of succeeding if pressure was exercised online and at MPs’ constituency offices. It could have been fought with Twitter attacks and pickets everywhere the MPs go. They would have been forced to acknowledge the weight of the decision confronting them and the responsibility to the people of SA they bear.

This broad sweep of attack should have been accompanied by a more subtle and sensitive approach. Stalwarts and veterans of the movement opposed to the reign of the king should have visited all these MPs who will decide the fate of a nation.

The MPs would have had to account to someone they deeply respect. The stalwarts would have reminded them of the values they stood for. They would have reminded them why people went into exile, got imprisoned and lost their lives.

Then they could have asked them: is this what they struggled for, an SA run by a heavily compromised king?

A pincer move of public pressure and private consciousness-raising would have put the king in a corner. There is no room for neutrality and no place to run and hide. Fates are sealed and the purgatory of silent battles is at last over.

This did not happen on the scale that was needed. Anonymous MPs will make unpressured decisions and the king will be allowed to sneak out of check. For the king knows the game he is playing, and the rebels do not.

Even if the rebels had watched all the reruns of The West Wing or House of Cards, it would not have prepared them for power chess. The US electoral system allows citizens to vote directly for their representatives, which makes them  more responsive to the electorate than their party bosses. The South African electoral system does not allow voters to hold MPs to account between the five-year polls.

'Smallanyana skeletons' can be useful tools in the hands of those desperate for power

The king of Nkandla knows he can place more pressure on the ANC MPs than any number of people hoisting placards on the streets. He controls their million-rand salaries and how often they fly to Cape Town.

In the battle between political consciousness and the politics of self-interest, the expedient decision is always easier to make than the right one.

"Smallanyana skeletons" can be useful tools in the hands of those desperate for power.

Zuma knows he has a grip on his party’s MPs until 2019 — when voters will finally decide if his kingdom will fall.

He understands political chess has little to do with mood or sentiment. It has all to do with power and leverage.

He knows he will eventually be unseated as the grandmaster; all he needs to do is survive a few skirmishes that end in messy draws. Those who oppose him however, need an outright victory to knock him from his throne.

This is why the no-confidence vote in Parliament will be easily defeated. Zuma understands the game and the pressure points in his party.

• Claasen is the founder of media strategy company Untold Media.

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