Do we need a ZEXIT? Must President Zuma go before the 2019 Elections?

Pictures: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency/ANA

Since the election of the new President of the ANC in December 2017 there has been a call from numerous quarters that the former President of the ANC, President Zuma should resign as the President of the country. This call is becoming more boulder each day. It emanates from sectors within the ANC, civil society, business and the media amongst others.  Many agree that it is no longer a question of whether President Zuma will go before the 2019 Elections?  Rather it is a question of when he will go?  Many ordinary members and leaders alike including those that supported NDZ for President have resigned themselves to this reality. They argue that the only outstanding issue is the finalization of the details and process of the exit hereafter referred to as ‘’ZEXIT’’.

However, some of those making this call argue that the newly elected president of the ANC should take over the reins immediately. They have even set a deadline that President Zuma should be gone before the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 8 February 2018.  Many of those pushing for a rushed ‘’ZEXIT’’ have done so based on a false sense of triumphalism, blind anger and with the zeal of a religious fundamentalist. This overzealousness and bravado could make the arguments for a rushed ZEXIT dangerous, irrational and illogical. We need only to analyze the downward spiral of ANC support and splits in 2009 and 2014 elections to understand the ramifications of this mentality.

Therefore, before jumping on this bandwagon it is important that the ANC exercise caution, rationalism and logic. The alternative could result in dire consequences for the ANC in the short, medium and long term. Whichever conclusion the ANC NEC reaches on the ZEXIT it must be made on the basis of the principle that the unity of the ANC is paramount.  To this end we should ask a number of questions which include, 1) What are the reasons for this call, 2) Is the call justified given that there is only about 18 months left to the next election when the new ANC President takes over the reins should the ANC win the 2019 National and Provincial Elections? 3) If, as we are to led to believe that President Zuma’s exit before 2019 is a foregone conclusion, must it be before the magical date of the SONA and if so why? And 4)  What are the risks, unintended consequences and opportunity costs of such a drastic decision?

What are the arguments for the early removal of the President?

One of the main justifications provided for the removal of the President is that he is no longer the President of the ANC. Therefore some argue that it will create two (2) centers of power. The argument of two centers of power is a mischievous party fiction created by party triumphalist to justify the removal of Presidents. It is done at the expense of the unity and cohesion of the ANC and the stability of government. The ANC has always proclaimed that there is only one (1) center of power i.e. the ANC. In practice, this means   that the President of the country is a deployed cadre of the ANC and is accountable to the ANC leadership collective i.e. the NEC, even if he/she is / or is not the President of the ANC.

This is what happened when Mbeki took over from Mandela in December 1997 and President Mandela remained the President of the country until the 1999 elections. President Mandela accounted to the elected ANC leadership without any 2 centers of power emerging.

Equally, the removal of President Mbeki in 2008 after he was no longer the President of the ANC had numerous negative consequences for the unity and cohesion of the ANC. President Mbeki’s removal was due largely to the triumphalism of a winner takes all slate. His removal was also done in a manner that was deliberately designed to humiliate him and his supporters. It became the ‘’sine quoi non’’ and catalyst that united, mobilized and energized many supporters to leave the ANC and establish COPE. The impact of this resulted in the ANC losing support in 7 of the 9 provinces and the loss of the Western Cape to the DA. The only reason the ANC managed to remain above 60% nationally was because of the surge in support for the ANC in the most populous province i.e. Kwazulu Natal (KZN). This surge was large due to the election of a Zulu leader as President of the ANC i.e. an ethnic vote.  This increase from 45% to over 60% in 5 years created a false sense of security as the ANC was able to remain above 60% nationally despite its downward trend in most other provinces.

The historical lessons indicate that the removal of a President immediately after a national conference should therefore be under exceptional circumstances only. The notion of what constitutes exceptional circumstances must be measured against the objective factors and the existing material conditions supported by data analytics. It must also be guided by the ideology, historical culture and what is in the best interests of the ANC.

What would then be in the best interests of the ANC? 

The ANC is currently facing possibly its most challenging election in 2019. It has been on a downward electoral spiral since 2009. According to the latest Markinor research the ANC support nationally is currently hovering at between 48-52%.  It is further in danger of going below 50% nationally and losing Gauteng.

The decision as to whether/ not to recall the President of the country prior to his term ending should be based solely on political pragmatism of whether it / not it will benefit the ANCs electoral prospects in 2019. I.e. whether President Zuma’s continued presence will result in the ANC losing further support. Alternatively, whether his removal will result in a further decline in ANC support as in the case of the removal of President Mbeki after the Polokwane conference.

The ANCs own internal research after the 2016 LGE indicates that President Zuma’s continued presence as President did contribute to the loss of ANC support. Particularly in the metros and amongst the black middle class. It resulted in the party receiving only 54% nationally as well as losing a further three metros other than Cape Town. With an election on the horizon It is this argument that rationally and reasonably justifies why the ANC needs an early ZEXIT.

However, at the same time the removal of the President may have serious unintended risks. The ANC support in Kwazulu Natal is not a historic hegemonic vote for the ANC and therefore it should not be taken for granted. Rather at least 25% of that vote since 2009 has been an ethnic vote for a Zulu leader.  This vote like the cape coloured vote is fluid and these voters may leave the ANC in droves if they feel that Zulu leadership is being undermined, marginalized and purged. 

A similar scenario happened in the Western Cape in 2009 when more than 15% of the fluid coloured vote for the ANC received in 2004 left the ANC and voted for other parties after the unceremonious removal of the Premier Rasool and President Mbeki. Already due to the divisions in Kwazulu Natal emerging since its 2014 provincial conference we are beginning to witness the re-emergence of the IFP. Yet, unlike the Western Cape the greater danger in respect of KZN is that since 2009 it has provided the largest ANC voter support buffering the ANC from an even faster decline. This predicament has been further compounded by the fact that for the first time since 1994 the ANC doesn’t have a Zulu leader in its Top 6 deepening the perception that there is a purge against the Zulu nation.

Thus, on the face of it, it would seem that the ANC is currently in a chicken and egg situation. If it continues to retain president Zuma it will continue to lose significant support in the metro and risk going below 50% in the 2019 elections. It may also lose Gauteng which is the economic engine of the country. Whilst if the ANC removes him before the end of his term it may well arrest its decline in Gauteng in 2019 and even increase its electoral support in the 3 metros it lost possibly winning it back at the next LGE. However, if KZN voters perceive the removal to be done in an unceremonious, undignified and rushed manner it may risk losing a significant chunk of its KZN support which is currently the largest ANC support base. This may then amount to a pyrrhic victory for the ANC at the national level as all the gains it makes in the metros could be lost in KZN and the ANC may then still be in danger of going below 50%.

What is the Way Forward?

It is in the best interests of the ANC to ensure an early ZEXIT and appoint Cyril Ramaphosa as the President of the country as soon as possible. This will allow the ANC to win back the so called ‘’clever black “and urban black voter support. An early ZEXIT is not a humiliation in itself for President Zuma provided that it is managed in a manner that is not deliberately / inadvertently designed to humiliate him. 

The perception of a humiliation is as important as the reality.  The transition must also be managed without causing unnecessary instability to both the ANC unity and government delivery.  Secondly in order to address the perception that this is not an act of purging or humiliation of Zulus, the ANC should consider appointing an ANC NEC leader from Kwazulu Natal as the Deputy President of the country until the next elections. Zwele Mkhize, Senzo Mchunu and Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma (NDZ) are all possible candidates.  

This appointment will send a strong message to the fluid ANC voters in Kwazulu Natal that the ANC is not purging or alienating Zulus which will help to retain their support in 2019. Whatever decision the ANC takes it must ensure that the ANC unity is the paramount guiding principle. 

Zahir Amien is a Politics and Social Commentator based in the Western Cape.