Political Watch

SONA 2018 more a test for Ramaphosa than for Zuma


The State of the Nation Address at next week’s opening of parliament is building up to being more a test for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa than for President Jacob Zuma.

At the time of writing it was not even sure which one of the two gentlemen will be delivering the SONA next week Thursday, February 8. However, it is sure it will be one of the two delivering the address, which traditionally sets the political tone for the rest of the year.

The narrative being put out by some of President Zuma’s supporters, including senior officials in his office, that there is not enough time for his resignation and the inauguration of a newly elected president, implying that the SONA would then have to be postponed, is misleading at best.

Fact is, the Constitution makes ample provision for a situation where the office of the President becomes vacant, or a President is unable to fulfil his/her duties, and stipulates that “… an office-bearer in the order below acts as President.” That ‘order’ is then given as: a) The Deputy President; b) A Minister designated by the President; c) A Minister designated by the other members of the Cabinet; and d) The Speaker, until the National Assembly designates one of its other members.

Confusing messages from ANC

Speaking to the clearly still deeply fractured governing African National Congress (ANC) extremely confusing, and conflicting messages surrounding the position of President Zuma is presently coming from the party.

Before his departure back to South Africa from the World Economic Forum (WEF), Mr. Ramaphosa told the international media that there were talks on Mr. Zuma's exit from office. e

According to a report by HuffPost, a senior official in the presidency said “a quick recall of President Jacob Zuma is not going to happen at all," and that the meeting of a sub-committee of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC),  tasked to meet with Mr. Zuma about his future has not yet been scheduled.

And, the past weekend both ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, came out with guns blazing to defend and protect Zuma.

Magashule, speaking at an ANC Youth League event in KwaZulu-Natal, said there was no decision for Zuma to resign, and "it is only factional leaders who want to be populist".

Duarte, in turn was reported as having told reporters that Mr. Zuma would stay in office until the end of his term in 2019, while officials in his office put forward April, May or June as possible dates for his exit.

In the meantime, the ANC’s provincial leadership in the Eastern Cape (EC) has formally called on the party’s national officials to “fast track” Mr. Zuma’s removal from office, according to a report in The Sowetan, quoting the party’s EC provincial secretary, Lulama Ngcukaitobi.

 Another report, quoting ‘anonymous sources’ claim the party’s national working committee on Monday instructed the ANC’s six top official to tell Mr. Zuma to step down – some wanting it to happen before the SONA.  

Cabinet lekgotla   

The issue can reach a breaking point this weekend during 2018’s first of the twice-yearly Cabinet lekgotlas, where the SONA traditionally is top of the agenda. It is at these lekgotlas that cabinet discuss and decides on government’s priorities.

The president of the ANC and the president of the country both arrive at the lekgotla just back from trips abroad. However, it was quite different events that took them out of the country, and they might be in very different frames of mind.

Mr. Zuma at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa must have thought that for him it was, even if he survives in office until the 2019 election, the last visit to Addis Ababa as head of state.

In Davos at the World Economic Forum, Mr. Ramaphosa’s focus was mostly on the future, giving potential investors assurances about changes in South Africa on the front of issues like corruption and state capture, closely linked to Mr. Zuma’s administration.

In short, the one leader’s mind is occupied by how he can protect him self and his legacy, and the other’s by the future and creating a solid basis from which he in future can preside over policies ensuring a healthy, growing economy and national harmony.

For the latter it will be a decisive test if he can sell his vision at a lekgotla of a cabinet appointed by Mr. Zuma, a good number of them implicated in the state capture and corruption sins associated with the Zuma-administration.

Ramaphosa’s challenge

Mr Ramaphosa’s challenge, however is much wider than just his colleagues in cabinet. All of them must, and probably will, be mindful of the much more activist approach in the fight against state capture and corruption that has developed amongst parliament. The new mood has also taken hold of ANC MPs from which Mr. Zuma can no longer count on unqualified support and the preparation or rules under which he could be impeached is in progress.

The method of a Zexit also has implications for government. If Zuma resigns amicably, then Cabinet stays in place. If Zuma is removed, then the Cabinet and deputy ministers lose their jobs with him.

Ramaphosa, and those watching/commentating must also keep in mind that the fracturing of the ANC is by far not restricted to a Zuma/Ramaphosa divide.

Multiple centres of power has developed within the party. Some of it along provincial lines, but also, as the Makashule/Duarte pronouncements illustrated, between political and party organisational/administration functional spheres.

The SONA delivered next week should reveal if the Ramaphosa succeeded in selling his vision at the lekgotla. However, that would be just the start of which wold be a “long walk” to uniting the party again.

And, if the address is to be delivered by Mr. Zuma, there remain several other serious risks. For one, the opening of parliament could descend in chaos, because at least the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is sure to do their utmost to prevent Mr. Zuma from addressing Parliament.

If, and when Mr. Zuma does deliver the SONA, there is no way of preventing him from going off script, as he has often done in the past.

A restless eight days is ahead for Mr. Ramaphosa, the ANC in all its formations, and for the country, its investor- and business communities.  

by Piet Coetzer

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