President Jacob Zuma addresses the media at the 2017 World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma addresses the media at the 2017 World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

Pundits of our politics have for many years declared that we had reached a tipping point in the Jacob Zuma presidency.

First, it was the disclosure that Zuma had spent millions building himself a grand place in Nkandla. The story first broke in 2009 and political commentators predicted that this, of all things, would damage his standing in the ANC. It didn’t. Instead, the ANC closed ranks around him.

Then came the public protector’s report saying that Zuma was responsible for a portion of the costs to improve his homestead. It also pointed out his very active role in dealing with the architect of his choice in making the changes. The report came just before the 2014 general election. But when people went to the polls, the needle indicating ANC support hardly moved.

Next was the Constitutional Court judgment that Zuma had unlawfully ignored the public protector and must pay back the money. This time, the ground shifted ever so slightly as the ANC national executive discussed how to respond, with one lone voice — Gauteng’s Paul Mashatile — suggesting that Zuma should "do the honourable thing" and follow his conscience. But again, in the end, ranks were closed.

Zuma has not before been rejected in one of his stronghold provinces

But since the latter half of 2016, there have been tangible shifts. Parliament has shown some rebelliousness, individual ANC national executive committee (NEC) members have spoken out, stalwarts have lobbied and campaigned and the pressure is certainly building. But with an iron constitution like Zuma’s, the pundits have realised that contrary to rational expectation, the president is not going anywhere, no matter the damage being done to the ANC’s electoral chances.

This week, though, the odds on the calculation changed. The robust rejection of Zuma by a substantial number of Cosatu members at Monday’s May Day rally may really have been the much-vaunted tipping point at last.

For the first time, it was abundantly clear — particularly to the ANC itself — that the risk that Zuma has laid on the ANC is a price that may be too expensive to pay. The context was also important. While Zuma has been booed before — in Gauteng at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela — he has not been rejected in one of his stronghold provinces.

The Free State is one such stronghold. Run by Ace Magashule with tight control over minutiae such as who joins which branch and who attends which meeting, the expectation the day before the rally had been that the stadium would be packed with loyalists. But although an attempt was made by an unknown and unnamed group of people in red 100% Zuma T-shirts to occupy the front rows of the stadium and sing their support for the president, the deluge of real Cosatu red shirts, determined to drown out Zuma, was too much for the strong men of the Free State to cope with.

That Zuma left the occasion taciturn and silent without having given his speech, while his closest acolytes sprouted nonsense about conspiracies and anarchists, said it all. It was a rout that was widely celebrated.

Coming as it does just before a crucial NEC meeting in which once again the fitness of the president to govern is certain to be raised makes it even more interesting. With the NEC sharply divided and the stakes too high for the pro-Zuma group to allow another contender into the presidential chair, this won’t be resolved amicably or at all. As the ANC operates on consensus and not a vote, the NEC is likely to find itself in a bind from which it cannot escape.

It brings us inexorably close to the tipping point. But this time the tipping point might hinge not on whether Zuma continues to lead the ANC, it might instead be about the future of the ANC itself, and who wins the election in 2019.

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