President Jacob Zuma’s D-day is one step closer after the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) agreed in principle — at least according to some members of the committee — that he should step down, but that his exit be managed by the party’s top six officials, led by ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

However, Ace Magashule, the new ANC secretary-general, insisted that there was no agreement on recalling Zuma, and Ramaphosa and Zuma would between them hammer out the details of Zuma’s exit.

The NEC also stated, in something of a lukewarm warning to the pro-Zuma camp, that the party is the centre of power that wields "authority over the state".

But Zuma’s allies did not put up much of a fight when his "recall" as national president was raised at the ANC lekgotla in Irene, Pretoria, last Friday, perhaps a sign of shifting allegiances just a month after the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec, which delivered the party presidency to Ramaphosa. But maybe the Zuma-ites didn’t need to resist, considering that Ramaphosa won by a mere 179 votes of almost 5,000 cast.

In all, it has been a positive two weeks for SA, with the general mood — particularly the economic aspect — lifted by the prospect of Ramaphosa replacing Zuma as national president.

But Ramaphosa has to manage Zuma’s exit as adroitly as possible if he is to keep the ANC intact, before SA can truly turn the corner.

Zuma finally announced the setting up of a judicial commission on state capture, to be headed by a judge chosen by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and not by the president.

Indications are that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is finally acting on state-capture allegations, with reports that the Asset Forfeiture Unit was granted an order by the Bloemfontein high court to freeze assets of R220m, linked to the controversial Vrede dairy farm project in which the Guptas were implicated.

Ramaphosa ensured that a new board has been installed at Eskom, chaired by Jabu Mabuza (who is also the Telkom chairman), in a bid to rescue the wayward state-owned entity that is central to SA’s economic stability.

On the ANC front, the NEC suspended the leadership structures in two key bases for the Zuma camp, the Free State and KwaZulu Natal. This was after the party provincial executive committees of both were deemed by the courts last year to have been unlawfully constituted.

Insiders attending the ANC’s NEC meeting last week indicate that there was a strong message from Ramaphosa on the "mood" in the country, that there is a need to "do things differently" and that the governing party has to be more sensitive to the needs of the people.

He is also said to have come out strongly against factionalism in the party, calling for lobby groups established ahead of the succession race last year to disband.

Ramaphosa this week went to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, where he is expected to rebuild confidence in SA and its economic policies, and woo investors alarmed by Zuma’s presidency.

Things may be looking up, but as one senior party leader reminded the Financial Mail this week: "Victory is not an event, but a process."

Zuma’s announcement of a judicial commission into state capture was, almost predictably, accompanied by a rider: he will still pursue his appeal of the judgment that ordered him to set up the commission in line with former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations.

Zuma, on the eve of the NEC meeting, also lodged a notice to appeal in the constitutional court another high court judgment — the one that set aside the appointment of NPA head Shaun Abrahams and mandated Ramaphosa to pick his replacement.

As Ramaphosa prepared to inform world leaders in Davos that the political uncertainty damaging confidence in SA is a thing of the past, two senior party officials spun a somewhat different line about Zuma’s going.

The rand promptly weakened to R12.15 against the US dollar from R12.02 on Monday before seesawing back to R12.13 on Tuesday.

Despite rumours of Zuma’s imminent recall, there remains no real indication of when he will exit the Union Buildings. The official line from the ANC is that there is "no decision" in the NEC "about whether Zuma should go or stay".

Formal communication on the NEC meeting, by Magashule in his first press briefing as secretary-general on Monday, was that there is no timeline on Zuma’s possible exit and that Zuma and Ramaphosa will resolve the issue. This contradicts a number of NEC sources who say the NEC had indeed agreed on the matter during a lengthy debate in which a number of leaders spoke out.

One explanation for the mixed signals is that Magashule was toeing the line, outlined by Ramaphosa, that Zuma should not be "humiliated". Another is that Magashule and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, another staunch Zuma ally, were trying to derail the talks around Zuma’s exit.

The official line from Luthuli House is simply that "the officials, led by President Ramaphosa, will continue their engagement with ... Zuma to ensure effective co-ordination between the ANC and government".

Duarte elaborated, telling the Financial Mail that Ramaphosa and Zuma would meet every Tuesday evening to discuss issues of governance.

She was emphatic that there was "no decision to ask President Zuma to go".

With Magashule and Duarte in control of ANC communications, more conflicting messages are likely, which could prove an irritation but could also block Ramaphosa’s renewal project.

This is particularly dangerous in the run-up to the 2019 election, when messaging to shape sentiment among the electorate is key.

The process remains fraught and far from over, with Zuma, according to some on the NEC, now quite likely to deliver the state of the nation address on February 8.

According to one Ramaphosa ally, Zuma’s departure will be managed "sensitively", partly to ensure he takes responsibility for some of his actions, such as his announcement of free tertiary education, which would require drastic and unpopular measures to fund, including higher Vat or a freeze on public-sector wages.

Yet the official NEC statement says categorically that the party is the "centre of power" with "authority over the state". It goes on: "Cadres deployed in government must therefore be diligent to understand and propagate the views of the movement on any given matter and where unsure, seek clarity from the ANC.

"A clear accountability framework for all cadres operating in the state will be developed within eight months. The accountability framework is expected to include provisions for enforcement and consequence management where cadres do not perform as expected."

Ramaphosa insiders say this would enable him to instruct Zuma on decisions he should take as national president and allow the party to act against him should he not do so.

Ramaphosa is treading gingerly as he moves to unravel the destruction wrought by the Zuma administration (of which he was, after all, the deputy president), continually stressing the value of both party and leadership unity.

It appears the ANC is giving Zuma a long rope to hang himself.

But he has yet another loose end to tie up from within the safety of the Union Buildings. He has until the end of January to convince the NPA why, on legal grounds, he should not be prosecuted for fraud and corruption linked to the arms deal.

This matter arises from the supreme court of appeal’s overturning of a 2009 NPA decision to drop charges against Zuma after he conceded to the court that the decision had been irrational.

Court papers show Abrahams wrote to Zuma’s lawyers in December indicating he had been informed by the acting Hawks chief that all 218 people on the witness list before the charges were withdrawn in 2009 had been located and were available to testify.

Ramaphosa is playing the long game as he navigates the toxic terrain he has inherited. And the factional mish-mash elected at Nasrec to lead the ANC could also trip up his attempts at sweeping clean.

marriann@businesslive.co.za

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