The week that Zuma lost it?

Patrick Laurence asks whether the ANC president will hang on for a second-term

President Jacob Zuma has reason to contemplate the veracity of an observation made by former British premier Harold Wilson shortly after he led the Labour Party to victory in the 1964 general election: "A week is a long time in politics."

Though it may not have been immediately obvious, a major political shift occurred in the week which started with the expose in the Sunday Times naming Zuma as the father of a baby girl born to Sonono Khoza, daughter of Irvin Khoza of soccer fame, and which ended with Zuma's apology to his family, the African National Congress and the nation at large for impregnating a woman outside the parameters of his polygamous marriage.

The apology, however, is better described as one that was extracted from him by senior members of the ANC rather than a spontaneous gesture from the heart signalling genuine remorse.

It is important to remember that Zuma's first reaction was to describe his infidelity as a private matter between the families concerned and that he had sought to put right by paying damages to the Khoza family in accordance with Zulu cultural mores.

There is another important aspect to Zuma's initial reaction: he described his relationship with Sonono Khoza as a private matter and attacked the media for violating his and her rights to privacy, as well as accusing the media of denying his infant daughter the right to existence, without explaining how identifying him as the father denied her the right to live.

But it is clear that Zuma's response failed to convince many South Africa of all races, some of whom accused him of using or abusing Zulu culture to justify his philandering inclinations, pointing out that polygamous marriages do not give the husband the right to have sex with women to whom he is not married.

As it turned out, the sense of disquiet over Zuma's affair was shared by senior members in the ANC, who, fearing that his defence of his action was politically damaging to the ANC, prevailed on him to issue a second statement in which he apologised unreservedly for his adulterous relationship with Sonono.

The intervention of the ANC's leadership corps - which might have included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela - may have signalled a growing unease within the ANC that Zuma is a liability rather than an asset to the ANC and that his tenure as ANC president should be limited to one term.

The implications of that extrapolation are (1) that Zuma would not seek re-election as ANC president at the ANC's elective conference in 2012 and (2) that he would therefore not be eligible to serve as the ANC's candidate to occupy the national presidential office in 2014.

These developments are not written in stone. They have, however, become probable rather than improbable or, to put it another way, the week in question has wrought profound changes in the ANC by casting Zuma as a liability rather than an asset to the party.

On that note it is relevant to record that Zuma's belated apology met with scepticism from a wide range of people, some of them ANC supporters and members.

Some them recall that Zuma expressed similar contrition in 2006  for having had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive women young enough to be his daughter after he was acquitted of raping her, the presiding judge having ruled that the sex between Zuma and the women was consensual.

The same ANC aligned observers ask whether Zuma will not again forget that he admitted that he erred in have sex with Sonono and promised to act more responsibly and prudently in future.

David Welsh, former professor of African government at the University of Cape Town and author of The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, observes that much will depend on how the ANC fares in next year's local government elections.

If the ANC suffers serious losses to opposition parties, the chances of Zuma serving another a second term as ANC president will be severely diminished. If the ANC strengthens its hold over the smaller towns and, more importantly, in the major cities, Zuma may yet become a two-term president.

Welsh describes Zuma performance as president as "disastrous" and characterised by lots of talk but little action.

Noting Zuma's failure to intervene decisively to end the squabbling between nationalists and communists in the ANC-led tripartite alliance, as well as his failure to take firm action against cabinet ministers who are using their positions to negotiate lucrative deals with government-owned corporations, Welsh describes Zuma as a "weak leader."

Welsh's assessment should be seen in the context of a recent Sunday Independent interview with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a former ANC Women's League president and a high-ranking member of the Zuma-led ANC's national executive committee.

She states bluntly in the interview that the present ANC is "not my ANC". In the same interview - which she has not repudiated - she describing the manoeuvring for position, power and privilege in the ANC today as "disgusting."

It is unclear whether she was expressing her disgust in an attempt, so to speak, to clean the Aegean stables or whether she did so in pursuit of a political agenda. Either way, her comments are not supportive of Zuma and may be the prelude to an internal party coup aimed at limiting his tenure as ANC and South African president to one term.

If the disquiet with Zuma's leadership intensifies and he is forced or persuaded to surrender his leadership of the ANC in 2012, it is unclear who would succeed him. The most likely candidate at present is Tokyo Sexwale who, at the age of 57, is still young enough to serve as president. Apart from his relatively young age, there are two further factors in his favour.

Firstly, Sexwale is famously wealthy and will be able to mount an impressive campaign in pursuit of his presidential ambitions, which first surfaced in the late 1990s and were revived again in 2007 when he declared his willingness to stand as a candidate for the presidency, only to withdraw in favour of Zuma.

Secondly, he is the minister of human settlement and is well positioned to win the votes of the poor and homeless by launching a well-timed housing programme.

But if a week is a long time in politics, there is ample time over the next two years for more than one candidate to emerge and enter the arena to challenge Sexwale.

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