Zuma Watch

Operation rebrand Zuma takes serious knocks

President Zuma back in eye of a storm

After what initially seemed a good week for an ANC “rebrand Zuma” project, last week ended with the emergence of serious new and old threats to its leader.

For some weeks now there were signs of President Jacob Zuma re-emerging from hiding after he had almost disappeared from the public eye at the end of last year. At the time most of the important public duties fell to lesser lights like Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

At the time, towards the middle of last year, Mr Zuma looked gaunt when seen in public, like during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) after the May general elections. The official line then was that he was exhausted and needed rest after the hectic election campaign.

His low profile was even more evident after the storm in parliament surrounding the Nkandla affair and subsequent disruptions in parliament during his question time that put the focus on this matter. Especially ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, played a central role in combating the fallout over Nkandla.

New approach

Towards the end of last year and early this year Mr Zuma’s public profile steadily started lifting again, culminating in the 12 February SONA and subsequent debate on it last week. There was a clear campaign to shield him from the unpleasantness of the style and tactics of especially the Economic Freedom Fighters on the day of the SONA’s delivery.

The markedly more conciliatory and more statesman-like approach by Mr Zuma in his reply to the SONA debate lent some weight to the speculation by some analysts that the ANC has embarked on a “rebrand Zuma” programme.

The initial reaction to his reply suggested that the project was a success and he was praised from various quarters for his approach.

Even before the SONA debate there were signs of success, with none other than Leon Louw, the executive director of the Free Market Foundation, praising him for leading “the charge for constitutionality and the rule of law”. This was in response to Mr Zuma sending the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill back to parliament for not passing “constitutional muster”.

The reaction to his reply to the debate is best summarized in the words of columnist Andrew Donaldson, who wrote: “The president walked into yesterday afternoon’s post-debate cocktail party with the triumphant swagger of a man whose mule had just won the July. And why not? Some 20 minutes earlier he’d pulled off an unlikely triumph. Jacob Zuma had addressed the nation and, against all expectations, had come across as . . . presidential.”

Did not last

But if the ANC strategists felt elated about the final outcome of the SONA, despite its shaky start on the 12th, it did not last.

Even on the day of his reply there was a news item reminding all that the ghost of Nkandla has not quite been put to bed yet and that Mr Zuma might still be forced to make an appearance in court in connection with the matter.

It was reported that Mr Zuma’s personal architect, Minenhle Makhanya, who presided over the Nkandla project and who is being sued by the state for R144 million in connection with it, is asking for assurances from the State that he won’t be prosecuted if he speaks out about the project in light of a non-disclosure agreement he had signed.

If the state is unwilling to do so, it is most unlikely that a court would not grant Mr Makhanya some protection to enable him to fully defend himself.

The implications are clear – some facts surrounding the case that the Mr Zuma and his defenders have fought so hard to keep hidden, might just come out in this civil action.

The case against Makhanya is due to resume on Wednesday (25 February), which also happens to be the day of new Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene’s first presentation of the full national budget since taking up office – something that seems to have somewhat disappeared in all the political noise surrounding the SONA.

But the worst was to come over the weekend when the Sunday Times, reported on suspicions that one of Mr Zuma’s wives, in a plot worthy of a Shakespearian drama, was involved in an attempt to poison him.

The presidency, in a response, described the article as “… based on total speculation and gossip”, nothing is proven yet and the article is based on information from anonymous sources.

It does, however, tie in neatly with some other facts, like Mr Zuma’s illness at the end of last year and his, until now, still not fully explained mysterious visit to Russia in August last year. It was a low-key visit during which he underwent medical tests. An official statement said that he would also use the period in Russia “to rest”.

Real political significance

The question of real significance that arises is why this information about that period, the trip and suspicions of a plot by one of his spouses surfaces now?

It is probably a symptom of deep divisions within the ruling party over the leadership of Mr Zuma – something typical of political in-fighting wherever and whenever it occurs.

When comrades in arms fall out, it has a tendency to turn ugly and, in similar context, to boot the rape case against Mr Zuma on which he was acquitted way back in 2006 is back in the news.

Former Intelligence Minister, Ronny Kasrils, has filed a R1 million defamation claim against Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe for statements to the effect that Kasrils was responsible for instigating the rape charge against Mr Zuma.

Under South African defamation law all Mr Kasrils has to do is to convince the court that the statements were indeed defamatory. The onus is then on Maphatsoe to prove that the statements were true and that it was in the public interest to make them public. This has all the potential for some dirty ANC political laundry to enter the public domain.

And in just over two weeks’ time Mr Zuma will be back in parliament for the resumption of the question time over Inkandla, which in August last year saw, until then unprecedented, chaos erupting in the National Assembly.

It is clear that the storm clouds around Mr Zuma’s leadership are far from abating and are likely to intensify in the weeks and months to come.

by Piet Coetzer

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