On NDZ's possible return to cabinet

Coenraad Bezuidenhout writes on the significance of the mooted move

NDZ’s Cabinet appointment may facilitate Zuma’s early exit, but not in the way you might expect     

Becoming an MP will certainly not harm Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s prospects to become the next President of the ANC come December, but there is a significant chance her appointment to Parliament will have a negligible impact on her campaign. She may still be positioned to facilitate President Zuma’s early exit from government, though, but in a manner somewhat different from what is being publicly assumed at present.

Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is struggling. Polls of ANC members peg her support at about half that of her rival, Deputy President Cyril Ramphosa. Her biggest drawback is being perceived as President Zuma’s proxy. Preferences within the ANC have also swung in favour of more rational policy foundations for key issues like black empowerment and land reform. Her white monopoly capital paradigm has failed to gain traction as a result.

Her campaigning style has been derided and, justifiably or not, media coverage has cloaked her efforts in an air of officiousness. Also, though she attempts to trade on it, her stint as AU Commissioner as not delivered the necessary political dividends vis-à-vis the powerful precedent of the Deputy President of the ANC succeeding the President of the organisation.

A Parliamentary placement for Dlamini-Zuma is possible, but could be futile for her succession prospects. No rules would have to be bent, as there is more than one vacancy in the ANC caucus to fill and she is certainly very competent to do so. It could also be a prelude to a Cabinet appointment: deputy ministerial vacancies in Trade and Industry and Higher Education and Training could justify a reshuffle, and the President has also already used both the extra-Parliamentary appointments to Cabinet allowed by the Constitution.

However, the mooted strategy of replacing Zuma opponent and Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande with Dlamini-Zuma to capitalise on a rumoured free higher education announcement would have limits in terms of what it could achieve: even if any announcements met with their expectations, the #FeesMustFall movement has disintegrated too much to mobilise support with which to reward her campaign.

Another rumoured strategy, to replace Ramaphosa with Dlamini-Zuma as Deputy President of the country, could at best be superfluous and at worst trigger disaster for both her campaign and for President Zuma’s agenda. On its own, it would not overcome Ramaphosa’s position as natural successor to the throne by virtue of being the incumbent Deputy President of the ANC. It could also cause a political backlash against President Zuma and Dr Dlamini-Zuma and create significant opportunity for Ramaphosa to parade himself as a victim, as Zuma did when former President Thabo Mbeki fired him as Deputy President of the country more than a decade ago.

Since it is such a long shot, Dlamini-Zuma’s appointment to Parliament and, possibly, Cabinet could presage a different stratagem to promote President Zuma’s interests, if not her succession prospects. Zuma’s doubts about his ex-wife’s chances already emerged cloaked as a unity proposal in his closing speech at the ANC policy conference in June, when he suggested the runner-up for President of the ANC be made one of two ANC Deputy Presidents. That did not fly. The latest calculation may very well be that if Dlamini-Zuma is appointed to Cabinet, her relative seniority would position her well for the position of Deputy President in a Ramaphosa-led interim “government of ANC unity” in the run-up to the 2019 elections.

It may be easy to dismiss this likelihood if President Zuma did not have a long history of pre-empting political scenarios, like the avid chess player he is. He already started setting up options for his succession to cover broad-ranging possibilities when internal dissent resulted in the first challenges to his rule in the run-up to the ANC’s elective conference in 2012. One can speculate whether lobbying for Dlamini-Zuma’s eventual election as Commissioner of the African Union in October of that year was part of that effort from the outset, but the status of her position was definitely leveraged as a counterbalance to Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as Deputy President of the ANC as time went on.

The Gupta’s increasing influence over the President’s agenda alienated key confidants, most notably ANC Treasurer-General Dr Zweli Mkhize and Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe. Even if they were to be considered serious succession candidates, such as Dr Mkhize still is, it would no longer benefit President Zuma’s cause.

Against this backdrop, the return of perennial presidential hopeful, ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete, as Speaker of Parliament – a position constitutionally equal in stature to that of Deputy President – was significant. Even though her political leadership skills are regarded cynically, there was a brief flare-up in her succession prospects in the run-up to the vote of no confidence in Parliament last month. An outside possibility existed, beyond her immediate constitutional duties as Speaker, that she may have been nominated by the ANC as a unifying candidate for the Presidency in the unlikely event that President Zuma was deposed. Unless a dynamic event triggers a similar motion before December with significantly greater chances of success, Speaker Mbete’s incumbency in the Presidency in any capacity, even on interim basis, appears unlikely.

Not for lack of competence, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe is another non-prospect for succession that served as a pawn in President Zuma’s game. A member of Cabinet since the beginning of President Mandela’s administration, Radebe is a senior minister who is also the ANC’s head of policy. His role as a counterweight to Ramaphosa’s assent emerged when he was appointed Chairperson of the National Planning Commission and given political responsibility for the National Development plan under President Zuma’s second administration. This was a responsibility that formerly rested with Ramaphosa and essentially denied him of what many assumed could constitute the centrepiece of his portfolio as Deputy President.

Notwithstanding these manoeuvrings, President Zuma and his proxies wildly underestimated some of Deputy President Ramaphosa’s advantages. Marikana did not render him unelectable. His key political skill, of building political capital through collaboration and consensus, has safeguarded him against the politics of patronage. His CR17Siyavuma campaign built successful access routes to constituencies, despite his wealth and former absence from politics. He has also done well withholding direct criticism of Zuma until the time was right, despite significant pressure from commentators.

Much can still happen before any particular result is sewn up for December, but the political realities also mean that it would be reckless to assume the Zuma camp is targeting a Dlamini-Zuma victory at all costs. Her campaign is in a perilous enough state for President Zuma’s supporters to consider critical backdoors to ameliorate the implications for him of a Ramaphosa victory.

Rebuilding the ANC effectively requires that there be consequences for the way the organisation has been hollowed out under the President, and that this be done soon. Doing so while preserving the unity of the organisation in the run-up to the 2019 election will be difficult, but it is likely to be made even harder with Dlamini-Zuma in the upper echelons of government. 

Coenraad Bezuidenhout tweets at @CoenraadB