The ANC’s internal politics: Is Zuma's gravity field waning?

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There is a tendency, when considering our politics, to presume that what Number One wants, Number One gets. It’s easy to understand, as so often it is true. However, several recent events have shown that perhaps there is some clear blue water between what President Jacob Zuma wants to happen, and what some members of the ANC want to happen. It almost seems that he is moving without parts of the ANC. While this doesn’t necessarily mean there is movement against Zuma, it could indicate that some people in the party are feeling that they have the space to speak up against decisions that he’s made. 

On Wednesday Cosatu and the SACP issued a joint statement in which they called on SABC chair Zandile Tshabalala to either produce proof she has the qualifications she says she has, or quit to spare the country further embarrassment. That the SACP and Cosatu disagree in public with a decision from Zuma, who clearly wants Tshabalala to remain in her post, or even the ANC, would not necessarily be new. But it does follow from a hearing of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications in which it is clear that ANC MPs have had enough of Tshabalala. In fact, tempers have risen to the point where Tshabalala has accused the chair of that committee, ANC MP Joyce Moloi-Moropa, of malice against her.

For the moment, Moloi-Moropa has agreed to allow a postponement for Tshabalala’s lawyers to prepare her defence. As there is seemingly no defence to prepare (otherwise surely she would be able to answer the question directly), when it does meet again, it’s likely to be a short proceeding. When someone gets into hot water, any reasonably experienced observer can usually tell quite quickly if they have a chance of surviving. There is surely no chance of her surviving this. What’s odd is that she clearly doesn't realise it.

Then there is Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Energy. Several of its members are clearly furious that Zuma, and Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, are signing nuclear power deals in Russia, France and possibly anywhere else, without reporting back to them first. It’s chair Fikile Majola wants to summon her to account. ANC MP Thandi Mahambehlala complained that they were learning through the media information they should have been given formally.

Considering that Zuma is obviously the person whose decision is driving this process, it seems slightly unusual that an ANC MP would take on this issue so publicly in this way. Coupled with the behaviour of ANC MPs around the surely soon-to-be-gone Tshabalala, it does perhaps raise questions about why this is happening.

What makes it stranger is that ANC MPs have been so quick to defend Zuma around Nkandla. Of course, it could well be that defence which has irritated some ANC MPs to the point where they feel they need to take on Zuma on these other policy issues. Or perhaps they feel that their behaviour around Nkandla inoculates them against any criticism of their behaviour on the nuclear and Tshabalala issues.

There may also be other factors at play. When Zuma ascended to the Luthuli House throne at Polokwane, he made it very clear that he had no policy ambitions; he would just be an “empty vessel” for the members of the ANC to speak through. On the nuclear issue, he has clearly been driving the process. First a trip to Russia that included “periods of rest”; then suddenly the signing of a nuclear deal with that country. And then it was rescinded, or re-translated, depending on your view of these things. Then the Presidency gave Joemat-Pettersson authority to sign a deal with France. Which hasn’t yet been re-translated.

This seems to fly in the face of what the ANC decided at Mangaung, where presumably the only real policy discussions around nuclear energy were as part of the National Development Plan, which advises against such a big nuclear investment. This means that ANC MPs could be well within their rights to complain. They would see it as a big policy shift within government that they have not been a part of. And so far, they’ve been ignored.

When it comes to Tshabalala, it’s impossible to divorce her lack of qualifications from the same lack displayed by the SABC’s current Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoneng. She appointed him permanently, and the ANC (including Gwede Mantashe, no less) appeared to criticise it afterwards. This could show that here, the motivation behind these appointments has had more to do with Zuma than with the ANC.

When it comes to managing politicians, it is important to make sure they don’t look silly in public. They usually can’t bear it, as looking powerful is important to them. The mistake Zuma may have made here was to make these various ANC MPs look weak. They’ve been embarrassed. And so they are going to be difficult to convince to back down. They are also going to start thinking, as all politicians do, of their own futures. Zuma is now into the final third of his time as ANC Number One. No one wants to be blamed later when the nuclear programme blows up in their faces [You just had to use that metaphor, didn't you? – Ed].

Of course, what happens next could be important. If Joemat-Pettersson is called and has to face tough questions from ANC MPs (as has happened with her in the past), and if the Communications Committee does fire Tshabalala, other MPs could well feel they also have the freedom to move. Parliament could become slightly more exciting again. And this time, for all the right reasons.

Then of course, there’s our favourite subject: e-tolls. The Gauteng ANC has taken on Luthuli House, and by implication, Zuma, directly. When it went to make a submission to the e-tolls review panel this week, it wasn’t just a flunky who was sent. Its leader, Paul Mashatile, his deputy David Makhura and other top provincial leaders went too (which meant that Makhura was testifying in front of the panel he set up as Premier, but hey, that’s South African politics for you).

Should they be seen to get away with it (and for the moment they are) this could also spell trouble for Zuma. It’s not just important to be in charge, it’s also important to look as if you’re in charge. And a series of losses on these fronts could spell trouble in the longer run.

Having said all that, Zuma is unlikely to give up any power willingly. He could well respond in ways that make all of these groups weaker than they are now.

However, what this all indicates, and it’s worth remembering, is that the ANC is not just about one person. It is about much more than that. And as a result, there will always be manoeuvering within it. As it appears we’re currently seeing. DM

Article by: Stephen Grootes.

Article Source: The Daily Maverick.