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Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
Former president Jacob Zuma. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

After a month of trying to wish the Jacob Zuma problem away, the ANC decided reluctantly to act on its unpredictable former president. On Monday, the party’s national executive committee (NEC) announced that it had summarily suspended Zuma’s membership.

Party leaders were at pains to point out the decision was unanimous. Zuma can appeal against his suspension at the party’s national disciplinary appeals committee.

Zuma’s cardinal sin is that on December 16, a symbolically important date in the ANC’s calendar, he announced that he would not be campaigning for the ANC in the general election and would instead be vote and campaign for the newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party.

Zuma’s public grievance against the ANC is twofold: he is openly against his successor and former boss Cyril Ramaphosa; and he is against how Ramaphosa has reshaped the ANC.

His private grievance is that Ramaphosa’s ANC, to use his language, allowed him to be humiliated in being jailed after being ousted from power on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

Simultaneously, the ANC sees him as leading an insurgency to destabilise it and the country like Angola’s Unita and Mozambique’s Renamo instead of engaging in legitimate political contestation.

The suspension is the first decisive action by the ANC to deal with the Zuma problem. Up until this weekend’s NEC, the party’s strategy, if it could be called that, was to ignore Zuma and wish him away.

Party leaders, including chair Gwede Mantashe, felt that ignoring Zuma now and deferring action until after the election would starve him of much-needed political oxygen to sustain the MK campaign. 

When this failed, with the numbers attending his “meet-and-greet” rallies countrywide growing, Luthuli House panicked.

Brave face

A week ago, the party changed course. It deployed senior officials, mostly from his native KwaZulu-Natal province, to challenge and isolate him. NEC members such as police minister Bheki Cele, former health minister Zweli Mkhize and Bheki Mtolo, the ANC’s KZN provincial secretary, have used intemperate language in their attacks on Zuma.

In post-NEC interviews, Ramaphosa has sought to play down the scale of the fallout from Zuma’s defiance of his party. This brave face is understandable but has its limits in containing Zuma. 

Sunday’s decision is significant. Critically, it means the ANC has chosen a legalistic way of dealing with Zuma. This is understandable given Zuma’s erratic nature. Law courts are among his terrain battles. There is no knowing that he will not approach courts to mediate his disputes with the ANC, from which he has hitherto elected not to resign.

After all, courts would offer him another platform to publicly excoriate the ANC and its leader.

As a creation of the ANC, it is factual that Zuma should be regarded as primarily an ANC problem.

However, the ANC’s characterisation of Zuma as a legal problem is problematic, mistaken and misplaced. He is not only an ANC and KZN problem. Zuma is SA’s problem. He is a legal, law-and-order, political and national problem. 

In 2021, the KZN ANC characterised Zuma correctly as a national problem. At the time, Zuma was facing jail time for contempt of court for refusing to appear before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Corruption and Fraud.

Agencies failed

The ANC’s NEC failed dismally to deal with its deployee. Just as now, the ANC then mischaracterised Zuma as a mere legal issue to be dealt with by courts.

Weeks before his incarceration, belligerent crowds gathered at Zuma’s Nkandla’s homestead threatening violence if he was jailed. The ANC failed to condemn these threats. Worse, law enforcement agencies failed to detect the threat and to avert the violence.

When the mayhem that killed about 400 people and caused R50bn in  damage erupted, law-enforcement agencies failed to act for days.

Though Zuma finally handed himself over to correctional services for a few weeks of imprisonment, he never bothered to urge his supporters to refrain from acts of vandalism and violence. Even more concerning, the ANC, which had propped him up, never asked Zuma to rein in his supporters or to take responsibility for the aftermath, including the huge loss of life.

On the face of it, the ANC is now dealing with Zuma. However, this is a veneer of action. The Zuma knife is still falling ominously on KZN and the rest of the country.

South Africans deserve better: the ANC needs to catch its falling knife to save us all.

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