‘’Of hawks, hardliners & haters’’ – How the proverbial axe finally fell on President ZUMA

President Jacob Zuma, right, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa outside Parliament at the State of the Nation Address in Cape Town last February. Ramaphosa and Zuma are locked in discussions over Zuma's future as the head of state. Picture: AP/African News Agency (ANA)

Over the past 2 weeks in the run up to SONA 2018 there was much toing and fro-ing, heightened tensions, confusion and nervousness as to when former President Zuma would resign.

There was general consensus inside the ANC eventually even by former President Zuma himself (reluctantly so) and amongst his most ardent supporters that an early ZEXIT was necessary. This realization was based on the political conditions that the ANC needed to begin preparing for the 2019 national and provincial elections (2019 N&PE).  And that former President Zuma’s continued presence as President of the ANC was a liability to the ANC brand particularly amongst the urban black voting population.

The only disagreement amongst the ANC membership and leadership was whether he should be granted a dignified exit / an undignified one. From President Zuma and his supporters, the definition of what constituted a dignified exit boiled down to whether / not the ZEXIT would occur in the next 3-6 months i.e. a dignified exit or whether he would be forced out before the SONA and the budget vote or allowed time to say his goodbyes etc. Secondly, it included providing former President Zuma with all the perks that a President who resigned would have been entitled to i.e. security detail, legal costs etc.

By piecing together snippets of some of the media leaks and interviews with ANC leaders during this build up period we are able to string together 2 opposing narratives as to how the proverbial axe finally fell on President Zuma so quickly.

The first narrative is that President Ramaphosa was managing the negotiations for the ZEXIT which was then torpedoed by the NEC and the majority of the ANC parliamentary caucus’s so-called ‘’hawks, hardliners and haters.’’

According to this narrative President Ramaphosa was supportive of most of the conditions requested by former President Zuma for a dignified exit. This included giving President Zuma his 3 months for the ZEXIT. Throughout this period our President was wrongfully accused of becoming too soft, in danger of becoming a dove and dragging his feet. His negotiations were often misconstrued by many ANC members, leaders, the media, civil society and business alike as giving away too much?

The so-called ‘’hawks, hardliners and haters’’ were worried that President Ramaphosa was going to be outwitted by the wily President Zuma. But they had forgotten that our President was also an astute negotiator himself. He from the outset used the Obama Red Line tactic of negotiations i.e. there were certain boundaries he was not prepared to cross and everything else could be negotiated. In this case the red line would be that there had to be an early ZEXIT and it had to be within the next 3 months.  Secondly, ensuring that all other compromises that was agreed to would be ethical and legal. Therefore, the conspiracy theories and rumor mongering that were floating around during this period of a possible immunity deal was actually never on the cards.

What then informed our President’s (Ramaphosa’s) thinking in supporting this position?

President Ramaphosa was correctly considering the unity of the ANC as the sine quoi non for winning the 2019 elections whilst taking into account what was in the best interests of the country as well. His only objective was to ensure an early ZEXIT through a resignation by President Zuma rather than have to fire him through a parliamentary process. Therefore, he was trying not to antagonize President Zuma and his supporters to the extent that it would cause a public crisis for the ANC through a vote of no confidence or an impeachment process. Secondly, he wanted to avoid creating further disunity of both ANC members and supporters in Kwazulu Natal. Our President was acutely aware of the fact that Kwazulu Natal has the largest ANC membership and ANC voters. 

Furthermore, that President Zuma himself has been instrumental in building this support (almost doubling it in the last 20 years) through ethnic mobilisation. He was also sensitive to the reality that at least 25% of this support is not an historically hegemonic support base for the ANC.  Rather that there has been an ethnic consideration and conditionality in their support for the ANC making it a fluid vote. He was also aware that the ANC should guard against what could be perceived as an undignified purge of a Zulu Leader by pushing him out against his will through the parliamentary process.  This against a background of a growing perception amongst Zulu voters that the ANC is no longer accommodating to Zulus as they are not represented in the Top 6 of the ANC for the first time since 1994 even though they have provided the largest amount of ANC members and voters.

How then did events overtake and upend the negotiations of a 3 month ZEXIT?

If we are to believe this narrative it would seem that the President himself underestimated the strength of the so called “hawks, hardliners and haters’’ within the former CR17 faction both within the NEC and parliament. Their voices were becoming louder, attitudes harder and numbers increasing every day for the ZEXIT to occur before the SONA. When it seemed that most of the former NDZ17 supporters and the former President himself had agreed to the principle of an early ZEXIT they saw it as a sign of weakness and smelt and bade for Zuma’s blood. They decided to strike while the iron was hot.  This victory delivered by President Ramaphosa of getting Zuma to agree to the principle of an early ZEXIT had the unintended consequence of giving the so called ‘’hawks, hardliners and haters “a false sense of triumphalism that had escaped them at NASREC because of the outcome. They pushed a narrative that our President Ramaphosa was too weak to negotiate with President Zuma and that he would in all likelihood be outwitted by the wily Jacob Zuma. They complained and argued that former president Zuma was stringing him along and using delaying tactics.  

Yet even in this narrative, the real victory was delivered by our President through his skillful art of negotiation i.e. getting all the NDZ supporters and President Zuma to agree in principle to the early ZEXIT.    They only delivered the swift knockout blow in the final seconds of the 12th round of this very challenging process, after President Zuma had conceded to the principle of an early ZEXIT.

The second narrative that is also doing its rounds is that President Ramaphosa being an experienced and skillful negotiator used his tried and tested negotiating tact(r)ics that he harnessed during his trade union days as well as at CODESA. He deployed two negotiating tracks. The first involved himself I.e. with former President Zuma to wear him down and accept the principle of the early ZEXIT of about 3 months. The second involved using the so called ‘’hardliners, hawks and haters’’ in the NEC and parliamentary caucus to apply pressure on him through force. Once the 1st objective was achieved the second track took over to pounce on the former president and deliver a swift knockout punch by shifting the goal posts for an immediate ZEXIT. This shock and awe tact(r)ic and the speed with which it was implemented probably caught President Zuma, his supporters and advisors off guard.  It may have disoriented, and confused him which then resulted in his quick resignation under protest.

Whichever narrative is correct, and perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle it indicates the shrewdness, astuteness and skill of President Ramaphosa in out maneuvering the artful dodger President Zuma.

With ZEXIT now achieved the ANC now has sufficient time and space to begin to implement the changes in governance and service delivery that will ensure its victory in 2019.  However, the danger and unintended consequences of this spectacular ZEXIT victory is that it may embolden the so called ‘’hawks, hardliners and haters’’ to become triumphalist in how they handle matters going forward. This includes the appointment of the Deputy President and the reshuffling of cabinet which must happen. The ANC must guard against a false triumphalism as it will have the effect of further dividing the Kwazulu Natal ANC, the former NDZ supporters and KZN voters who already have a perception that the ANC is purging Zulu leaders. We are already seeing signs of ethnic mobilisation both within the ANC and beyond in this area. Whilst at this point the probabilities of a split from the ANC in KZN are unlikely.  However, if the ANC is perceived (rightly / wrongly) to be continuously purging its Zulu Leaders and former NDZ supporters a split may well happen. History has indicated both after Polokwane and Mangaung that when the early warning signs were there of a possible split and the ANC had the opportunity to prevent it the ANC didn’t heed the signs. Rather, it chose to act with bravado and became more triumphalist pushing out ANC members and forcing them to establish splinter parties such COPE and the EFF.

Zahir Amien is an independent social and political commentator