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Opinion: Zuma on his last political mile

Vuyo Mkovo südafrikanischer Journalist
Vuyo Mvoko
April 1, 2017

ANC leaders have for the first time publicly disagreed with President Jacob Zuma's decision to sack former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. South Africa-based journalist Vuyo Mvoko says political daggers have been drawn.

Südafrika | Präsident Jacob Zuma
Image: REUTERS/S. Hisham

Upon hearing that South African President Jacob Zuma had begun informing those who had to know about the decisions he had taken, I took to Twitter, and with my tongue firmly in my cheek simply wrote: "The night of the long knives."

It was on June 30, 1934, that Adolf Hitler ordered a bloody purge of some of his own Nazi party members who he suspected had the potential of later becoming political enemies. Obviously, the assassination of hundreds of Nazis can hardly be compared to Zuma's cabinet reshuffle. But the goals are somewhat similar: Both leaders did it to prop up their regimes out of fear of the unknown.

Zuma had already told the top officials of the country's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), as well as the top brass of his allies, the South African Communist Party, that he wanted to fire both Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas as finance minister and deputy respectively. The two were on their way to the UK and the US last weekend when they received news that their boss, the president, wanted them back in the country immediately.

Vuyo Mvoko, South African journalist.
South African based-journalist Vuyo Mvoko says President Zuma now cares less about what critics and supporters think of him

Together with business and union leaders, the ministers were about to begin a week-long roadshow to woo foreign investors. But according to intelligence reports the president had apparently obtained from state agents, the minister and his deputy were in cahoots with some "foreign forces." They had allegedly teamed up in an attempt to try and force regime change in South Africa or at least destabilize the country.

Zuma's tipping point

Ending a week of intense speculation, Zuma finally threw down the gauntlet on Thursday and announced probably the biggest reshuffle post-apartheid South Africa has ever seen. New Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba and his deputy Sifiso Buthelezi were among the 20 new or moved ministers and deputies now forming Zuma's new executive.

In the dozen or so interviews I have done with Zuma since 2009, when he took office, he has often not hidden his frustration at not being able to take the kinds of decisions he would have wanted to take. He said as much after the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters first disrupted his speech in parliament, and then again in January last year after his decision to fire then-Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene backfired and sent the local currency tumbling.

The dramatic reshuffle probably marks not only the end of giving a damn about what others may think of his decisions, but perhaps more significantly the beginning of his last political mile - and an uphill, muddy and rocky one at that.

Looming succession battle

Thought to be the mastermind behind a campaign to elect his former wife and former African Union chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, as ANC president and subsequently the country's president, Zuma has already made a lot of his comrades angry. They think that by effectively anointing her, he is giving her an unfair advantage.

With eight months left before the ANC holds its elective conference, factions within the ANC are working overtime not only to prevent Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma from ascending to the throne, but to stop President Zuma's cronies, benefactors and hangers-on from accessing billions of rands in state tenders. The purged ministers Gordhan and Jonas used the South African treasury, with its status as the super-ministry through which the country's biggest tenders have to go, to frustrate and block so many attempts by the patronage network of those close to the president, that this purge is Zuma's last attempt to get rid of those that stand between him and his wishes.

Significantly, hours after the Cabinet reshuffle, three of the ANC's top six officials - Zuma's deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, party Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and treasurer Zweli Mkhize - all went public with their disapproval of what their president had done. This is the first time they have ever done so in public.

It's undoubtedly the clearest sign that daggers have now been drawn, and it's about to get bloody among South Africa's most powerful politicians.

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