Natasha Marrian Political editor: Business Day

President Jacob Zuma is in the political departure lounge; but how long he will languish there is the burning question.

The ABC of removing a president, it could be argued, has been perfected by the governing ANC — notably in the case of former President Thabo Mbeki in 2008.

But Mbeki’s removal as national president was described by Frank Chikane, an Mbeki ally, as tantamount to a "coup d’etat". This suggests that the pressure exerted by the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) on Mbeki to step down "today and not tomorrow", instead of following parliamentary processes, was unconstitutional.

This view is contained in Chikane’s book, Eight Days in September. It goes into great detail about Mbeki’s "recall", which took place nine months after he lost the ANC presidency to Zuma in Polokwane in 2007.

Zuma’s backers, who alongside their man have brought governance of SA to its knees, are now warning against Zuma being sacked in a similar fashion.

What they know but do not say is that Zuma may very well not acquiesce to a demand by the NEC that he resign as Mbeki did on September 21 2008.

But Mbeki, at least according to the open letters he released early in 2016, was removed for his "aloofness" and perceptions that he meddled in a Zuma corruption case related to the arms deal. The pressure on Zuma to go is based on widespread perceptions that he has created a rogue state that is mired in corruption and far removed from its constitutional responsibility.

Zuma’s opponents in the party, too, are acutely aware that he may refuse to resign, which is why the dance towards his exit has to be carefully managed.

Newly elected ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said as much in an interview with the SABC at the weekend, when he explained that the "two centres of power" issue (that is, the national and party presidencies) was a "very delicate matter" which would be dealt with "in the interests of the people of SA".

A 2007 ANC conference resolution stipulates that the party’s president "preferably" has to be president of SA. Ordinarily this obviously applies to the situation following a national election, which generally takes place around 18 months after an ANC elective conference.

There is no way to avoid two centres of power except by aligning the ANC presidential term with the timing of a national election. Yet the impracticality of having two centres of power was mercilessly used by Zuma supporters to give Mbeki the chop.

what it means:

There is only one centre of power, the ANC under Ramaphosa, who has other ways to skin the Zuma cat 

The problem with two centres of power arose before Polokwane, when a report from the Northern Cape province of the party — where John Block was chairman and Dipuo Peters was the premier — highlighted its difficulties. It was resolved at Polokwane that there was only one centre of power, namely the ANC, which meant that the president of the party was in charge.

Now Zuma is smack bang in the same cross-hairs.

However, given the factional strains in the party that could split the ANC, the Ramaphosa camp feels that it is not necessary to use the matter of the two centres of power to remove Zuma: there is legitimacy to the move outside ANC processes which is plain for all to see.

In fact, it is an indictment of the ANC that it allowed Zuma to linger until the conclusion of his term at the helm of the party.

The reasons are well documented: the constitutional court judgment on Nkandla found that Zuma had breached his oath of office, and the high court in Pretoria, in two separate judgments, found that he is too conflicted to appoint the national director of public prosecutions or a judge to head a commission of inquiry into state capture. There is prima facie ample reason to justify Zuma’s recall.

A sitting president too conflicted to carry out his constitutional obligations is in effect a lame duck and therefore serves no purpose.

But ANC politics being what they are, and the Zuma looting bandwagon being as heavily laden as it is, means that his exit is a "delicate matter", as Ramaphosa put it.

In the interview, Ramaphosa made another telling admission, confirming that there is only one centre of power, namely the ANC — a tacit warning to Zuma that while he remains the national president, true power has shifted from beneath his feet.

Ramaphosa also said: "We will never humiliate President Zuma — that is one thing we are very clear on." He went on to say that the overriding consideration for wherever Zuma, or anyone else, was deployed would be "how we advance the interests of SA, and not how we advance the interests of a particular individual".

It would seem to be in the interest of the ANC and the country for Zuma to go. He could only be humiliated should he refuse to resign and be subjected to an impeachment process, which is likely to succeed, and which would mean forfeiting his post-presidential benefits.

The NEC meets for its first ordinary gathering of the year on Thursday, January 18. It is its first formal opportunity to kick off discussions on Zuma’s exit.

The Financial Mail understands that the discussion in fact began at a special NEC meeting last week, at which Ramaphosa told party leaders that he would give them a full briefing on his interaction with Zuma thus far at Thursday’s meeting. A discussion on Zuma’s leaving is set to flow from this briefing from Ramaphosa.

Insiders who are keen to see the back of Zuma are of the opinion, however, that though the meeting does provide an opportunity for him to leave, the "rug will have to be pulled from under him first". A strategy session is set to take place ahead of the meeting to establish how this might be done.

Already, Zuma loyalists are rethinking their allegiance. Fence sitters have practically been won over and Zuma hardliners will have to be shown the consequences of their continued loyalty.

A clear sign that the tide has turned against Zuma was the consistent booing that met him at the ANC’s January 8 celebrations in East London last weekend.

It may well be that the axe falls this weekend or that Zuma is allowed, out of decorum, to deliver his final state of the nation address on February 8.

But the consensus seems to be that the longer he lingers, the messier his exit will be. Obstinacy will harden attitudes against him.

Though he has appointed a commission of inquiry into state capture, Zuma has not abandoned his appeal of the judgment ordering him to set it up in line with former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s state capture report.

His backers, including incumbent public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, are egging him on to broaden its terms of reference.

But Ramaphosa maintains that the inquiry should focus on the matters raised by Madonsela, including the role in state capture of the Guptas, Zuma and his son Duduzane (see page 33). He said another commission would be set up thereafter to probe broader allegations.

Meanwhile, the election of the national working committee at this week’s NEC meeting will be a clear indication of where the balance of power in the structure lies.

While the ANC grapples with how to remove Zuma, it also has to plan for what has been shaping up to be its toughest national election campaign, in 2019.

If it sees off Zuma, the Ramaphosa ANC knows half its battle will have been won.