Zuma puts his party on trial as he calls everyone's bluff
On 11th September last year under the headline "Damn right I want a downgrade!" this column suggested that that was exactly what President Jacob Zuma was aiming for. The certainty that dismissal of Pravin Gordhan from the finance ministry would cause an adverse reaction among international credit ratings agencies gave Mr Zuma reason to loathe them as agents of white monopoly capitalism.
Since then other factors have come into play. They include growing revolt in his own party, public attacks on him by some of his own cabinet colleagues, mounting criticism in the media, increasing hostility in civil society, and the displeasure of the Constitutional Court. All along, no doubt, Mr Zuma has been smarting from his humiliation in December 2015 when adverse business, market, and party reaction compelled him to put Mr Gordhan back into his old job after the Nene/van Rooyen débâcle.
What better way to wreak revenge on the obstructive Pravin Gordhan than to order him back from one of his roadshows? What better way to demonstrate who is boss than to proceed to dismiss him despite the fact that just about everybody who is anybody warned him not to? So Mr Zuma was told to stay away from Ahmed Kathrada's funeral? Big deal. No doubt Mr Zuma read all the reports of how Mr Gordhan was lionised there even as he himself was excoriated, and then giggled as he put the finishing touches to the list of those to be axed along with Mr Gordhan.
As for business leaders, Mr Zuma has insulted them by ordering Mr Gordhan to cut short his trip with them. Last year this column warned all those business leaders who went on these trips that they would be suckered by Mr Zuma. Not long ago the CEO of a major bank was proclaiming that the relationship between business and government was the best in 40 years. Yeah right. Whether the claim was ever true is of no consequence to Mr Zuma.
As an example of the raw exercise of naked power, and the ability to wield it with such relish and in such defiance, the dismissal of Mr Gordhan belongs in all politics textbooks. "Zuma has back to wall", proclaims one headline. "We will make his life unbearable," says another, quoting critics. "Kathy's death has reignited our rage," trumpets a third. The South African Communist Party (SACP) threatens "drastic action". The Economic Freedom Fighters are running to the Constitutional Court to get it to order Parliament to impeach Mr Zuma.
Mr Zuma, however, is not on trial. His party is, along with their communist allies. It would take only 50 of their members of parliament to vote him out of office by supporting a motion of no-confidence. That is only a fifth of their 249 MPs. When the second deputy general secretary of the SACP, Solly Mapaila, says that the National Treasury should not be encircled and looted by "parasites and vultures", he speaks for many in his own party and in the ANC. When he talks about "rogue intelligence operatives" and "corruption on steroids", he echoes the views of a growing number of ANC parliamentarians and party officials.
Mr Zuma has defied them all. He has been doing so for years. He treats the critics in his party with the contempt with which he treats the Constitution, the law, ratings agencies, investors, state-owned entities, taxpayers, the national currency, bond and equity markets, and pretty much everything else. The dismissal of Mr Gordhan shows that he will not change. He has indeed called the bluff of all the critics in his own party, on the reasonable assumption that their bark is worse than their bite. The question is whether they will keep on condoning his behaviour or make use of their power to stop it.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires - Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, have just been published.