Ray Hartley Editor: BusinessLIVE
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS

President Jacob Zuma is licking his wounds after a brutal year of battering by the courts, public opinion and even some in his own party.

That he has survived is testimony to his political skill. While most of the country is against him, he maintains control within the ANC by holding on to a majority of provinces and leagues. As long as this is the case, he cannot be fired as president.

But if you expect Zuma to retreat into the shadows. you are underestimating his political smarts.

What is beginning to take shape is a new, populist agenda fired up by an angry loathing of that hoary old paper tiger, "white monopoly capital".

Zuma's first major statement of the year, his New Year's message, provided a tempered glimpse of this.

"The collaboration between business, labour and government to support the economy, which is one of the key achievements of the year 2016, must continue in the New Year. Importantly, together we must take the economic transformation programme forward. We need to change the commanding heights of the economy, and increase the participation of black people as owners and managers."

What Zuma means by "change the commanding heights of the economy" to take "transformation" forward is not the traditional interpretation - which is accepted by all but the far right - that the black share of the economy needs to grow rapidly.

What Zuma means is that his programme to elevate his cronies - the Gupta family and their ministerial hangers-on -  at the expense of "white monopoly capital" should gather steam.

It is no accident that the Guptas recently attempted to join the black business lobby. This is how the Sunday Times reported this story:

The Gupta family have been rebuffed in an audacious attempt to buy the influence of the Black Business Council, a powerful lobby group whose members include some of the biggest businesses in South Africa.

Sources said a proposal to have Oakbay Resources and Energy, the family's investment vehicle, become a corporate member of the council was made last month to the organisation's membership committee by Mzwanele Manyi, the council's head of policy.

But the offer, said to include a once-off R5-million donation as well as R1-million a month, was rejected before any official process could get under way, the Sunday Times has learnt.

Zuma's public statement might be disingenuous, but it is does strike a relatively moderate note.

What is fascinating is the roiling anger which is simmering beneath Zuma's diplomatic surface.

Retreating to his home base of KwaZulu-Natal over the festive season, Zuma attended an "Economic Freedom" lecture organised by the ANC Youth League in Durban.

There, according to a News24 report, he revealed his anger at how "white monopoly capital and their stooges" forced him to reverse his decision to appoint Des van Rooyen as finance minister a year earlier.

It is worth quoting what he said at some length:

"In December last year [2015], I took a decision informed by what I am talking about and appointed a minister of finance, and monopoly capital and their friends and their stooges attacked me and they are still attacking me today.… The question is if the president takes another decision, are we ready?

"I can tell you sitting on my own being pushed to reverse the decision, I said to myself, ‘This is what happens when the nation is not alert. When they do not even understand the actions taken and then they listen to the wrong narrative’.

"Since that time some colleagues [call it] ‘the disaster’; ‘the Nene disaster’, some call it, even some amongst yourselves."

This under-reported glimpse of an angry, populist Zuma suggests that he intends to do some damage before his date with destiny - the ANC's end-of-year conference at which he is expected to be replaced as the party's president.

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