Mutiny is a high-risk venture. However justified it might be, no matter how much the country might be groaning under the burden of a despised leader, the plotters typically only have one swing of the axe, so to speak.
Should they fail and the head of state survives, the power shifts to the incumbent, who can now rally all the power and resources of the state to strike back. The next blade to fall is likely to be that of the guillotine, on their treasonous necks.
This is the reality that those in the African National Congress who oppose President Jacob Zuma have had to confront. They failed in their earlier attempt at insurrection when, a few months ago, they could not at a meeting of the party’s national executive committee (NEC) scrape together a majority to demand Zuma’s resignation.
Tactically, it is a fatal mistake to show your hand if you cannot lay it down to scoop the pot. The apartheid era National Party and the ousting of President PW Botha, illustrates this well.
Disaffection in the NP cabinet towards the Groot Krokodil had grown steadily after PW had failed to cross, as he had intimated he would, his personal Rubicon – unbanning the ANC, releasing Nelson Mandela, and abandoning the few remaining hallowed tenets of “separate development”. However, knowing that they were too weak to unseat PW, despite the damage his intransigence was doing to the South African economy, the rebel ministers stayed their hand.
When PW had a stroke, a few years later in 1989, they moved swiftly. Working with the powerful provincial leaderships that they controlled, FW de Klerk and his allies forced PW’s resignation as party leader, on the grounds of “ill health”. Despite the fact that he was, in fact, making an excellent physical recovery, within months they had completed the coup by also forcing him to resign the presidency or the face the ignominy of being dismissed.
This is Political Survival 101. All politicians, including those in the ANC, a byzantine and intrigue-ridden organisation, understand well the precepts of rebellion.
After all, the “recall” of former president Thabo Mbeki was executed with textbook precision. It is a state of the art coup d’état when the target goes willingly to the scaffold in the company of the revolutionaries, erroneously confident that it is he who will be pulling the execution lever.
Mbeki was totally outwitted by Zuma and his cohorts. Zuma, the arch usurper, was never going to fall that easily.
When the anti-Zuma coalition failed at the NEC meeting, they effectively signed their own political death warrants. The sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas this week are the first heads to roll but they assuredly will not be the last.
The bloodletting was delayed by a combination of factors.
The less important one was the threat of a ratings downgrade and a run on the currency. The sacking of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene had badly dented international confidence in SA, forcing Zuma to back off and hastily draft into the fray the one man who could stave off the crisis, Gordhan.
This is at present less of a factor. Our major trading and investment partners – the dollar, sterling and euro nations – are experiencing their own economic problems, making the rand less vulnerable.
Also, in Zuma’s world, national interest takes second place to the interests of his inner circle. The growing judicial and investigative pressure on Zuma’s controversial benefactors, the Guptas, as well as other “state capture” leeches, have made action a necessity.
The more important staying factor was the relative balance of power within the party. Zuma survived the NEC insurrection because his opponents were not strong enough.
But they were strong enough for it to be, by all accounts, a close run thing. Before he could retaliate, Zuma had to be confident that he could carry the day, which is why he has spent a great deal of time and energy – arguably more than he has put into leading the nation – trying to ensure that his personal power base is impregnable.
The recall of Gordhan and Jonas from an international investor road show, on the trite pretext of an “intelligence” report that the two are in cahoots with international capital and plotting regime change, indicated that Zuma felt that moment has arrived.
The death of liberation stalwart Ahmed Kathrada put Zuma’s plans on hold. He had to wait for the funeral, an occasion at which all the anti-Zuma personalities would be present to denounce him, to pass.
Zuma’s has now wielded his executioner’s axe. Given the powers of incumbency, the odds are that he will ride out the anger and alarm provoked by his replacements at the Treasury especially.
The ANC and its alliance, however, is deeply divided. It is likely, too, that with state capture now unimpeded, SA will be a much diminished nation by the time the next election crawls around in 2019.
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