Zuma’s blunders boost the GNU

William Saunderson-Meyer says that while the Tortoise of Nkandla lost this skirmish, the battle is not over


If it all unfolds as predicted, South Africa’s Government of National Unity (GNU) is about to come into existence. It most probably will be mirrored at a provincial level in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Chivvied with bated breath through a statutorily mandated two-week gestation, it will likely comprise the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, and the Inkatha Freedom Party. A few political minnows like ActionSA, BuildOneSA and Rise Mzansi may be thrown into the mix.

If so, they’re there more for flavouring than substance. That would be President Cyril Ramaphosa trying to disguise through the addition of some minor-party acronyms, the embarrassing fact that his avowedly Marxist-Leninist liberation organisation will actually not be in a GNU but what is in reality a coalition with its sworn enemies of 30 years, the stridently pro-market DA and IFP.

Political window dressing cannot disguise that this is an inherently fragile arrangement. Many ANC party members, as well as its trade union and communist allies, have a deep antipathy towards the “racist” DA and the “tribalist” IFP. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Not only are the political ideologies of the two blocs fundamentally different, but the centre-right parties are entering into a pact with an ANC whose entire existence is dependent on deeply embedded networks of patronage and corruption. For the ANC, the GNU is simply an act of expediency, an uncomfortable but necessary mechanism to retain power. However, it’s by no means clear that the governing party is willing — or will be permitted by its members — to make the policy compromises that will be required over the long term.

Fortunately, there is some good news for an embattled nation. The fragile prospects of the GNU have received a boost from an unexpected quarter — that of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. The recent unforced errors and miscalculations of this toxic pair will afford the GNU some of the much-needed time it needs to get off the ground.

It’s a welcome change in the tide of events. In the six years following his ousting from the presidency, Zuma put not a foot wrong tactically. With infuriating aplomb, he kept at bay the Zondo Commission, law enforcement, the courts, the prison service, poisonous wives, and the ANC party apparatus that had rejected him. His followers launched a bloody week-long insurrection in 2021 that went unanswered by an ineffectual State and a gormless president.

Then Zuma unexpectedly changed gear from Stalingrad attrition to an all-out blitzkrieg, putting the ANC further on the back foot. Less than six months before the election, Zuma launched, in the most shambolic fashion imaginable, his uMKhonto weSizwe Party (MK). He not only cheekily appropriated the name and livery of the ANC’s disbanded but venerated military wing, but did so while assuring a befuddled electorate that he would remain a card-carrying ANC member until he died.

The media scoffing and ANC scorn were short-lived.

First, he gave the ANC a rat-tat-tat of bloodied noses over their hopeless attempts to have his party de-registered, its name invalidated, and its symbols declared their intellectual property. Then came the body blow, his astonishing electoral breakthrough on 29 May that put the ANC on the ropes, with it slumping in support from 58% to 40% of the national vote and a miserable 18% in KZN.

It left Zuma in a powerful position, especially if he acted in concert with his old frenemy, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. After all, they have a lot in common. Both exited the ANC with reluctance. Both loathe Ramaphosa. Both appeal to young, alienated African voters. Both had visions, buoyed by their combined national vote of 25% (MK=15%, EFF=10%) against the DA’s 22% and the IFP’s 4%, of holding the balance of power in negotiations with the ANC.

But the Tortoise of Nkandla dozed off. Instead of pressing home the blitzkrieg, he withdrew to Stalingrad. Displaying a woeful lack of understanding of the Constitution under which he served for nine years, as well as worrying levels of paranoid delusion, Zuma made a series of blunders.

First, he demanded that the Electoral Commission (IEC) not announce the final results — the action that triggers the two-week window for negotiations between the parties of the composition of the next government — and that the “rigged” election which had deprived MK of a two-thirds majority be rerun. Second, he announced that MK would also not take up its 58 seats in the new National Assembly, an act that would supposedly invalidate the first sitting of the new Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Court this week ruled against Zuma in both matters. Bigger than the legal defeat was the loss of momentum. Had MK and the EFF, working together, agreed to negotiate participation in the GNU, they would still be at the table and holding strong hands over a long game.

Instead, through ill-advised legal actions and making Ramaphosa’s exit a prerequisite to negotiations, they effectively dealt themselves out of the game. The absence of these two populist, racist and bellicose players is the best news yet for the survival of the GNU and, ultimately, democracy in South Africa.

It doesn’t mean that the danger that MK and the EFF pose is over. The ANC still has within its party ranks, as well as on its powerful national executive committee, many whose sympathies lie with Zuma and Malema, not with Ramaphosa.

This is reflected in an electoral list compiled in such a way that many of Ramaphosa's key allies are among the experienced ANC MPs and six Cabinet ministers who bit the dust. Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, who is somewhat of an expert on electoral intricacies, sent me an analysis that shows the carnage is much worse than has been reported.

Ramaphosa’s party lost 71 seats, but because the final parliamentary intake results from a merge of the party's national and regional lists, there are 173 ANC MPs from the last Parliament who will not be taking up their seats this week. Remarkably, more than two-thirds (69%) of those faces on the ANC benches will be new.

Not only new but with their loyalties untested. News24 reports that the ANC is concerned that among the new MPs are “sleepers” whose sympathies lie with MK and Zuma. “There could be fireworks,” says Oppenheimer.

Whatever danger there exists of an ANC palace revolt, it is probably not immediate but down the line. Until MK ends its foolish boycott of Parliament, it can achieve nothing. Extra parliamentary action, like another 2021 insurrection, would be a dangerous gamble and is not on the cards at present.

For now, as a result of Zuma’s blunders, Ramaphosa has the upper hand. But MK and its sympathisers within ANC ranks are well placed, aided by the EFF, to exploit the cracks and strains that will develop in the GNU over the coming months. The battle is by no means over.

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