Field Marshal Zuma launches Stalingrad Phase 2

William Saunderson-Meyer asks whether the ex-President is about to launch a counter-attack against Ramaphosa


Former president Jacob Zuma’s detractors have for years delighted in deriding his “Stalingrad strategy”. It may be that they’re in for a nasty surprise.

It’s been widely-held that his attempts simply to wear down the resolve and commitment of his foes in law enforcement, the prosecuting authority and the courts — through endless delays, appeals and procedural sabotage — would ultimately be futile. The superior forces of a modern, democratic, constitutional order would eventually and inevitably prevail. 

They ignore the fact that the much-alluded to Battle of Stalingrad had two phases. The first phase was attritional, with the Soviets meeting the German offensive with stubborn resistance and at seemingly unsustainable cost. The second was to do what no sane military strategist thought possible, to break out of the city in a surprise move and decisively trounce their tormentors.

Zuma and his allies of convenience have excelled at the first phase. 

Not that Ramaphosa’s cautious prodding at the Zuma beast could ever plausibly be likened to the ferocious German onslaught on Russia. Instead, the president has been excessively placatory, warbling about nurturing social compacts between his surly and fractious “allies”, and signalling his lack of stomach for a battle to the death by publicly stating that his greatest presidential priority is party unity.

Now the Zuma-ites — a motley army of crooked cronies, greedy tenderpreneurs, racists and opportunists marching under the banner of Radical Economic Transformation — look as if they might be poised to unleash Stalingrad’s second, aggressive phase. There’s an air of confidence that they are sufficiently recovered from 2017’s shock loss of power, to take on Cyril Ramaphosa more boldly. Not necessarily in the belief that they can rout him, but hoping at least to force him to sue for peace on unfavourable terms. 

The first act has been to throw down the gauntlet. Zuma, who solemnly swore to uphold the Constitution has defied it. His refusal to appear before the Zondo Commission into State Capture, the one that he appointed three years ago and urged everyone “to respect, co-operate with, and place no impediment before”, ups the ante from his previous evasive pattern of sick notes from his Mom and claims that the dog ate his legal notes.

He has defied an order of the Constitutional Court — the one to which he appointed the Chief Justice and six of the other eight judges currently on the Bench — describing the apex court as a political tool of sinister forces. The judges, he says, are acting on cue to destroy him for his “stance on the transformation of this country and its economy”.

And in another cannon shot across Ramaphosa’s always wavering bows, Zuma’s pal, African National Congress Secretary-General Ace Magashule, was quick to signal where Luthuli House stood in any conflict. When asked whether Zuma would be suspended from the party for defying the courts — a theoretically grave offence against the ANC’s disciplinary code — he replied: “Why should we suspend a person who believes in what he believes in? Why should we call him into order when he’s done nothing wrong?”

That’s not the only insurrection that confronts Ramaphosa. Separately, and unremarked upon for the startling act of defiance that it is, the SA National Defence Force this week joined Zuma in kicking constitutional authority in the gonads. 

A team of investigators from the Hawks and officials from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), were seen off at gunpoint when they tried to act on a warrant to seize illegal medicines that allegedly had been corruptly acquired. The drug, Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B, touted by some in the ANC as Cuba’s miracle cure for COVID-19, had been illegally bought by the SANDF for R200m, found an investigation by the Auditor-General. It was smuggled into South Africa under the guise of mercy flight, breaking virtually every law governing medicine use and registration.

What makes this incident different from the usual looting of state assets is the SANDF’s defiance. The confrontation “was really tense and a minister had to be called before the Hawks stood down and left”, the Sunday Times reports.

The SANDF then further upped the stakes. It issued a statement declaring that it was not, and never would be, subject to civilian regulation on medicines, which was the “sole responsibility” of the Surgeon-General. In other words, the military can and will, with impunity, thumb its nose at the entire regulatory caboodle: the Auditor-General, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), and the statutorily-appointed SAHPRA.

The statement made no mention of whether SANDF involvement in fraud and corruption — the reason the Hawks were there — is also now the “sole responsibility” of the military police. But the SANDF’s belligerence may have paid off. Rapport claims that the hardline stance of its top brass is the reason why Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s intended appointment of a three-person investigatory panel has not happened.

None of this signals an imminent military coup d'état. But given that Zuma has organised hard to mobilise Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans and serving SANDF officers in public support of him, this, too, is a constitutional challenge of sorts. And it does signal that an internal party revolt remains a possibility.

So, what will Cyril do in response? The answer is that he’ll do what he does best. Very little. Contrary to speculation that the government will throw the book at Zuma for defying the Constitutional Court order, Ramaphosa will instead do everything possible to defuse matters. 

For the president, too, has his battle strategies with which to face Armageddon. His preferred one is the Neville Chamberlain option, perfected by the eponymous British prime minister in the prelude to World War II.

It consists of sitting perfectly still and hoping that all the nastiness will just melt away and everyone can be friends again. If the monster becomes too scary, appease it with an occasional blood sacrifice. In Chamberlain’s case, it was Austria and Czechoslovakia. In Ramaphosa’s case, it is Expropriation Without Compensation, with more reparations to come.

After all, our beleaguered president has been there before with corruption, fraud and lawlessness. The judicial process, as South Africans have ruefully noticed — and contrary to the vigorous prosecutions of officials and party members promised by Ramaphosa — can be accommodatingly slow.

Investigations will have to take place. Charges will have to be pondered, drafted and laid. Summons will have to be served. Court dates will have to be agreed. Applications for postponement will have to be considered. Fines will have to be levied — predictions that Zuma will be handed a prison sentence are sheer wishful thinking — and then there will be appeals and counter-appeals.

With a bit of luck and the surreptitious support of a tortoise bureaucracy, things will drag out long enough for Ramaphosa to limp through to a second-term nomination, which is the only goal that he has consistently pursued. What he’s going to DO with that second term, heaven only knows.

The conundrum for Ramaphosa — who is looking ashen and aged in his recent television appearances — is whether Zuma is as willing to embrace prison martyrdom as he proclaims. And if he does go to jail, whether there will be the explosion of populist anger that Zuma is counting on to destroy the Ramaphosa administration,

In other words, is Field Marshal Zuma launching a real offensive or is it just a phoney war? 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye