Former President Jacob Zuma. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER
Former President Jacob Zuma. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER

Former president Jacob Zuma, whose hold on power seemed watertight until only recently, seems to have finally met his match in the form of a game he is said to know better than most: politics. Yet even as a mood of deliverance prevails in many parts of the country, there are those who worry that the strategist from Nkandla may just be playing another gambit.

Having worried that the man was immovable, many in senior circles in the governing party now seem haunted by a fear that he has gone too easily. Over the past two weeks, there has been media reportage and speculation about whether, or when, a potentially dangerous backlash to Zuma’s forced ousting could be expected from his supporters in KwaZulu-Natal.

It is common cause that the former president’s own party, the ANC, was an enabler of the interminable Zuma years.

Zuma ensured that those who were loyal to him were dispersed throughout the governing party, government and state-owned enterprises. In the weeks that have followed his ousting the spectre of a large, undefined and uncritical Zulu mass has remained omnipresent.

Indeed, given the bloody history of KwaZulu-Natal and the scenes of unbridled Zulu nationalism that accompanied Zuma’s rise to power, there has long been a sense that he is untouchable as a leader because of the extent of his ethnically based support among Zulu-speaking people, SA’s most populous tribe.

Zuma may be gone but for many who take the long view of the events of the past few weeks this fear remains.

In the subconscious of our collective memory lies the implied threat of the "Zuma tsunami" that began with the countrywide Friends of Zuma campaign following his axing as deputy president by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2005. Those who swarmed outside the courts during his rape trial (including supporters in full traditional Zulu regalia and colourful "100% Zulu" T-shirts) spoke the language of ethnic chauvinism.

In addition, Zuma’s indisputable charisma and political cunning added fuel to a nationalist fire few people had fully anticipated.

The fact that he occupied the highest office in the land for so long despite repeated and flagrant episodes of wrongdoing has only served to perpetuate Zuma’s cultural mythology. At the height of his power there were even hushed rumours about the strength of the muti Zuma had to be using to keep his opponents at bay.

This all feeds into the idea that his ethnic support among the Zulu nation is indisputable.

Despite the impressive fightback from civic society, independent institutions, the media and opposition parties, cemented by a judiciary that has been exemplary in holding state power to account, the fear that Zuma might still marshall his "100% Zulu" support base in a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of any alleged criminal activities stemming from his years in power remains very much alive.

What are the chances of this taking place on a scale that would be worthy of concern to the nation? To get a sense of this, one must interrogate the very notion of "Zulu allegiance" to the former president. How widespread is it? How unquestioning is it? The politics of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal might be a useful guide.

When it emerged that the ANC’s eThekwini branch had rejected the national executive committee’s (NEC’s) decision to recall Zuma, some saw this as a signal that the political problem of ethnicity would outlive Zuma’s presidency. However, although there was little commentary in the mainstream media at the time, it is worth noting that the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal executive committee held a lekgotla that began on the day of Zuma’s forced resignation and ended three days later.

The significance of this is that the highest provincial structure of the ANC, and one in which the "pro-Zuma" Sihle Zikalala-led faction has a majority, voted to accept the NEC’s recall of its former president with no conditions and no qualifying statements.

This alone is not conclusive evidence that the "Zulu threat" is not alive and well. However, it bears remembering that KwaZulu-Natal is a terrain fraught with divisions within the ANC too.

In September 2017, the High Court in Pietermaritzburg declared the results of the ANC provincial elective conference of 2015 (in which the pro-Zuma faction led by Zikalala came out tops) null and void. Judge Jerome Mnguni ruled that the pro-Zuma faction’s ascent to power in the province was through fraudulent means.

The party in the province is run by an interim caretaker committee as it works to restore unity. Under these circumstances, it would be unwise to claim uMsholozi has the provincial support he would need to call upon were he to embark on an ethnically based fightback strategy.

Of course, the stakes are very high for Zuma since the possibility of prosecution looms large. He may indeed attempt to flex his political muscles as a shot across the bows of those who might be planning to pursue him politically, or through the courts. If so, more branches can be expected to break with the party line in the weeks and months to come. It is likely these outbursts would come from structures in KwaZulu-Natal, but they may also originate in other provinces.

The system of patronage-based looting that became established under Zuma will not disappear overnight. Many who are implicated in criminal activity will try to use political leverage at branch level to stop the investigations and prosecutions that must now inevitably follow. But these will be the scattered sparks of dying embers. The power necessary to sustain such rebellion has already been comprehensively lost. The country’s enthusiastic response to Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory underlined this point.

A Zuma fightback based on a call to fellow Zulus will also fail because in the ethnic stakes he is less powerful than his cultural leader, King Goodwill Zwelithini. On the ground, in community after community in KwaZulu-Natal, there is no allegiance Zulu-speaking people feel that surpasses their loyalty to Zwelithini.

Those watching closely would have noted that in December, after the Nasrec conference confirmed Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president, the first port of call of the new ANC top six was the royal palace for a visit with the king. This act of acknowledgement was a masterstroke on the part of Ramaphosa and his advisers. This was confirmed when Zuma was summoned to the royal house a few weeks later, at the height of the "transition" talks that led to him stepping down as president.

There is no public record of the talks that took place at the palace, but a palace insider I spoke to said the meeting was not so much a discussion as a lecture from the king to his subject. The insider suggests the king’s comments may have been the deciding factor in Zuma’s resignation and will make it difficult for him to stir up trouble on the basis of ethnic lines and loyalties.

Certainly, if the king cautioned him against doing so, it is impossible to see how Zuma would now risk public censure from the monarch by engaging in any grassroots mobilisation to protect himself from prosecution.

It seems the chess master from Nkandla has himself been checkmated.

• Hlongwane is the former editor of SoccerLife Magazine. His second novel, Sanity Please Prevail, will be published later in 2018.