Detractors underestimate master tactician Zuma at their own peril
President’s bumbling country-bumpkin persona is a foil to lure his adversaries into a sense of false security
Business Day editor Tim Cohen wrote in last week’s column (How dirty tricks show Zuma camp anxiety, September 4) of the leadership race within the ANC being "an enigma inside a conundrum", but let us see whether we can unwrap some of it nonetheless.
We know a number of things, the most important of which is that Jacob Zuma is a master strategist. No one who has bet against him has ever won. That he survives at all is testimony to his political acumen. The bumbling country-bumpkin persona is a foil to lure his adversaries into a sense of false security — a view we have consistently held since hosting him to address investors shortly after his axing by Thabo Mbeki.
It is when the odds are against him that he often seems at his tactical best, as a number of incidents out of his past attest. Too few groups whose interests conflict with his have realised that, as an adversary, he should be accorded the greatest respect — anything less is to virtually assure him of victory.
The other things we know are the following:
• A simple accounting of assets is sufficient to sustain the view that he holds the balance of power in the government and the governing party. He has the upper hand in the executive and working committees of his party and controls its leagues. He also has a good measure of control of assets outside the party that stretch from the police and intelligence services to the Treasury and the public protector. Never forget how, despite being dismissed by Mbeki and banished to the wilderness, he fought back to spend the past eight years sitting behind Mbeki’s desk at the Union Buildings;
• He still polls relatively strongly within the ANC — and especially so in KwaZulu-Natal. Heed the warning of political analyst Ralph Mathekga, who told a glitzy Sandton audience two weeks ago that just because they did not like Zuma did not mean that all constituencies across the country felt the same. This is the same mistake London-and Washington-based analysts made on Brexit and Trump;
• His chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, polls strongly nationally (in one poll, better than the leader of the opposition) and very strongly among ANC supporters (although Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa polls better). It does not, therefore, automatically follow that the popular internal ANC vote must go against Camp Zuma;
• His camp has enough influence within the party and the state to steer the 2017 ANC internal election and the national election in 2019 in his camp’s favour — as the analyst Justice Malala again warned readers last week. Malala is not alone in sounding this cautionary note. Former ANC MP and ambassador to Ireland Melanie Verwoerd has been issuing the same warnings, as have others who, like Malala and Verwoerd, are all well enough informed to know what they are talking about;
• An agreement has in principle been struck within the ANC to send a united slate to the year-end conference (should it occur). However, given his level of influence, any effort at unity may deliver a slate that hangs heavily in favour of the Zuma camp. The fear of a split, around which the drive for unity is being built, was used to put paid to the attempted parliamentary vote of no confidence in August. It remains a deep fear within an ANC scarred by the consequences of the axing of Mbeki a decade ago;
• A Camp Zuma victory within the ANC will not necessarily deliver the country into the arms of a waiting coalition government in 2019. In fact, when our analysts stripped out of a recent Ipsos poll those people who were not registered to vote and those who said they would not vote, and made some assumptions about what undecided voters would do, the figures showed the ANC could have won a May 2017 election with a national majority of 57.1%-59% — far off the 47% of media headlines. (Too much hangs in the balance to extrapolate our estimates into 2019. The point is rather that as things stand, and after a decade of Zuma’s leadership, the ANC is still far from beaten); and
• Some members of Zuma’s camp can see the way ahead without him and without some of his closest backers. Any change in policy or governance suggested by Zuma’s formal departure at year-end or later in 2018 may, therefore, be more apparent than real — this is a critical point and one that not enough observers appreciate. They should heed the warning from Bryan Singer’s 1995 cult gangster film, The Usual Suspects, that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he did not exist".
Even as he departs the scene, Zuma’s infrastructure may outlive him, which is why it is wrong to fixate on the man and not focus on the system he has helped to cement.
Yet this is exactly where Zuma is vulnerable — the moment when an ANC branch delegate walks into a voting booth to cast a ballot
Moreover, to win at year-end, Ramaphosa needs strong support from the very people who have profited so from Zuma’s time in office, possibly making Ramaphosa an encumbered ANC leader at a time when SA will require swift action on governance and structural reform. When these points are stacked on top of each other, the sobering conclusion is that the assessments that the Zuma camp is already beaten have been overdone. At the very least, observers must admit that a very close race is being run and that the outcome may, unsatisfactorily, be a variation on the current theme, even as a great deal may initially appear to have changed.
Just how close that race is was revealed when an investment bank asked us to estimate who would win an internal ANC leadership election. Of the seven models we produced, Zuma’s camp triumphed in five, in four of which the margin was narrow.
Yet this is exactly where Zuma is vulnerable — the moment when an ANC branch delegate walks into a voting booth to cast a ballot. In that moment, the hold of ANC patronage and intimidation may slip briefly, revealing an all too rare chink in Camp Zuma’s armour.
It is in that moment, the models showed, that Ramaphosa could beat Camp Zuma, especially if he could turn at least Mpumalanga and a hefty chunk of KwaZulu-Natal his way while guarding effectively against any manipulation of delegate numbers (this is why we believe it makes sense that some in the Zuma camp favour a unity slate).
It is because of that small chink that the stigmatisation campaign against Ramaphosa must be taken seriously. It is seeking to establish a level of moral equivalency that may just muddy the waters sufficiently to deny Ramaphosa an ANC majority.
Returning to the editor’s conundrum: we know that Ramaphosa can win and we know how. So that is an outcome that must be on the radar. But the alternative was brought into stark relief when a Zuma insider, who had sight of our models and acknowledged they were good, added: "But you must know that we developed such models many years ago and they are better than yours."
Because of everything implicit in that statement, our advice to the groups that seek it is that Ramaphosa should win … except that his opponent is Zuma. And for that fact alone, you should be sufficiently hedged in the event of a win for Camp Zuma — whatever form that camp may take.
• Cronje is a scenario planner and CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.