Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma

For a time, it seemed tantalisingly possible that perhaps, just perhaps, President Jacob Zuma might be forced to stand down as president by his own national executive committee (NEC). But in the end, after four days of wrangling, the meeting ended a damp squib. The Zuma faction of the ANC won the battle, or at least beat off the attempt to unseat Zuma.

Yet, although nothing concrete has changed, in a more philosophical sense, everything has. Only six months ago, the NEC met and nothing like this was even remotely suggested. It seemed at that point that although Zuma had detractors in the governing party’s most senior structure, they were in a tiny minority. Yet in a very short time, it seems patience with the president is waning — and waning fast. For the first time, not just rank-and-file members, but several Cabinet ministers who sit in the heart of the executive stood up and openly challenged the president of the country.

When all is said and done, however, the ultimate result is depressing for the country and the party. Effectively, given the opportunity to reform and face voters with a new and invigorated leadership, the party’s most senior body opted instead for stasis. The consequences of a stalemate are in some ways as serious as the continuation of the status quo. They have implications wider than just the battle over who should lead the party and the country. It has been unequivocally demonstrated not just that the ANC will not refresh itself, but that it cannot.

This may seem like a harsh judgment in the circumstances, since there were some mitigating factors. The ANC’s national executive has a history of operating by consensus rather than by popular vote. The system has worked for the party by containing outliers — crucial in a party with such diverse views — and establishing a sense of fair and equal participation.

What the proposers were suggesting was effectively not only a decision to recall the president, but also that the decision should be taken by ballot, and secret ballot at that. This proved a bridge too far.

For those in the NEC who might have been convinced by an argument for change, there is another impediment. For the ANC to recall a sitting president for the second time would be a huge embarrassment. What would taking such a dramatic step say about the party’s ability to choose a leader?

So, what happens now? It seemed obvious at a point during the past three days that those who proposed the president should be recalled would either resign or would be ejected from the Cabinet by the president. Yet, even on this matter, it seems the mood of the party is against precipitative action, and they will remain.

This is surely the worst possible outcome. The executive must now try to effect government policy through a body in which the participants explicitly do not respect the authority of its leader. Zuma himself was reportedly vociferous in defending himself, claiming belligerently that he would not hand himself over to his enemies. Yet his "enemies" now sit in his own Cabinet. The policy confusion that prevailed before Tuesday will surely continue and worsen.

In the longer time frame, the consequences are not good for the president. He is forced to stand down as party leader at the end of next year. There was a time when his supporters considered pushing for him to stay longer; presumably now they would not dare. Zuma’s supporters have to find a new tactic, which presumably means finding a new candidate. But the ground is shifting beneath them because how successful will a candidate be who is considered Zuma’s puppet?

The Premier League once ruled the roost. Now it risks being relegated, not necessarily by the party but by a much more powerful force in a democracy — voters.

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