South Africa President Under Pressure

Africa Confidential

The would-be usurpers plotting against President Jacob Zuma should not underestimate their target’s determination

President Jacob Zuma is hitting the media hard with a charm offensive before the governing party’s critical National General Council meeting on 19 September. His plan is to appeal to African National Congress supporters – the majority of South Africans – over the heads of the delegates, many of whom complain that Zuma’s leadership falls short of their hopes when they elected him at the Polokwane conference in 2007. The precedent that the ANC delegates established at Polokwane – of ousting Thabo Mbeki – a sitting president – might now be used against Zuma.   Certainly, Zuma has fallen out with many in the coalition of trades unionists, communists and youth leaguers who voted for him in 2007 but he is a canny and determined operator: he will be not be pushed out without a fight.

There is bad blood between Zuma’s remaining supporters in cabinet and their rivals. We hear his supporters have asked Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to stay away from public events so as not to upstage the President. Motlanthe, a football fanatic who said he would rather be national team coach than national President, was told not to attend the World Cup football games this summer in an ‘official’ capacity.

Motlanthe’s support has increased sharply in recent months and his relationship with Zuma has soured accordingly. A senior ANC official suggests Motlanthe’s strategy should be to let Zuma ‘hang himself by his own rope’, then step in as the party’s saviour, perhaps at its 2012 national conference. A strong trades unionist and party loyalist, Motlanthe is no political conspirator and would not relish a confrontation.

Supporters of ousted President Mbeki still in the ANC back Motlanthe. In a forthcoming book, Frank Chikane, the former Director General of Mbeki’s Presidential Office, attacks Zuma as a ‘back-stabber’ and ‘opportunist’, and calls for Motlanthe to take over as soon as possible. Zuma, who wants to serve two terms, is trying to block any discussion of his leadership at the ANC’s upcoming meeting. At the Youth League (ANCYL) conference in Johannesburg last week, its President, Julius Malema, called for ‘new blood’ in the party leadership (See Zimbabwe box).

Youth for Kgalema

One of Malema’s close allies told Africa Confidential that the League may support Motlanthe in 2012, ‘depending on the political environment prevailing’. ANCYL will back Motlanthe on condition that he backs its choice for Secretary General, Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, a former ANCYL leader. ANCYL opposes the incumbent, Gwede Mantashe, who is also National Chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Kebby Mphatsoe, Chairman of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association, said ANC veterans backed Malema’s call for leadership change.

Zuma looked indecisive on the immediate issue of pay for public sector workers, whose strike by 1.3 million members has hit schools, hospitals and the judiciary (AC Vol 51 No 17). The unions suspended the strike on 5 September as it entered its fourth week, to allow 21 days of fresh negotiation.

Defence Minister Lindiwe Nonceba Sisulu wants Zuma to anoint her as his successor. Some Zuma-backers see it as a way to wrongfoot his critics and she might agree to protect his interests after he leaves office. Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale is playing it carefully, as is Mathews Phosa, the ANC National Treasurer. Allies of both tell us that they are considering the deputy presidency if Motlanthe becomes the leading candidate to take over from Zuma. Part of Motlanthe’s attraction is that he could be a one-term president and would play a transitional role, allowing the ANC leadership to heal itself after the fratricidal battles. After that, Sexwale or former ANC Secretary General and business candidate Cyril Ramaphosa might re-emerge as presidential candidates in 2017.

Services have not much improved under Zuma and recent reports of rich deals by his family – many of whom entered business only after he took office – have outraged supporters. Zuma’s former allies disagree over economic policies. ANCYL wants him to nationalise the mines; Malema told a Mining for Change conference that nationalisation ‘is the policy of the ANC and we want to reactivate it.’ The Chamber of Mines did not attend. The SACP’s Jeremy Cronin said ‘nationalisation was not the best way to deal with poverty’ and the state has not got the necessary finance or capacity for effective mining. Zuma cannot even get his cabinet to agree on economic strategies.

Zuma has been visiting ANC branches in the provinces trying to engage directly with the grassroots. In the Western Cape where this year the ANC has lost by-elections to the Democratic Alliance and independents, he campaigned door-to-door in the Langrecht informal settlement, near Groendaal. The President intends to use all the powers at his disposal – the intelligence, security and police services, now packed with his allies – in the ANC’s internal battles. Early this year, he announced that the intelligence services would investigate underperforming state-owned companies and local governments. The security services will use surveillance to keep ahead of Zuma’s political opponents. Cosatu’s Vavi has claimed that, in the battle for succession between Zuma and Mbeki in 2007, even former President Nelson Mandela was bugged.

Board bypass

At the SA Broadcasting Corporation on 7 September, two of Zuma’s preferred candidates were promoted – Phil Molefe as head of news, Solly Mokoetle as Chief Executive – against the SABC board’s wishes. The board, hand-picked by the ANC, was in conflict with its Chairman, Ben Ngubane (formerly leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, now in the ANC), whom it blames for underperformance. In a 22-page dossier for Parliament’s Communications Committee, the board alleges irregularities (including an unauthorised trip to China for Mokoetle two weeks before the World Cup), financial waste and controversial appointments. It has also asked Ngubane to resign for appointing Molefe without consultation; board members say that Ngubane claims Zuma approved the appointment.

Behind the scenes, Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, one of Zuma’s closest allies, has supported Ngubane and Molefe. Zuma wants control of the SABC, not only to secure positive coverage but also to keep scandals involving ANC leaders out of the news. Nyanda has been at the forefront of the attack; a leading member of the nationalist/populist and black business wing of the ANC, he has been accused of owning a 45% shareholding in Abalozi Security Risks Services, which won a R55 million contract with Transnet Freight Rail, among many others. Nyanda has introduced bills to govern broadcasting and is accused of interfering in the running of the SABC.

The Black Management Forum is a vocal supporter of Zuma and its leading members include Sandile Zungu, one of his business associates. The BMF’s Deputy President, Tembakazi Mnyaka, says ‘the media industry needs another level of regulation beyond self-regulation to ensure fairness and an equitable information dissemination’.