Zuma Watch

Zuma factor will dominate 2016 political economy scene


Just about the only sure prediction that can be made about the South African domestic news scene in 2016 is that it will largely be dominated by the Zuma factor, as was the case at the end of 2015.

More by - almost literally - accident rather than by design, President Jacob Zuma himself ensured that he and his position will take centre stage on the political, economic and even social news fronts throughout 2016.

The aftermath of his merry-go-round antics surrounding the cabinet position of the minister of finance has left a number questions hanging over his head during the changeover between 2015 and 2016.

These include:

  • Will Jacob Zuma survive as leader of the ANC and by extension as president of the country and head of government?
  • If he does get replaced, how soon will he go – before or after the municipal elections somewhere between May and August of this year – and what mechanism will be used to remove him?
  • How will the controversies and uncertainties surrounding him affect the municipal elections – both in terms of voter turnout and ANC support?
  •  Will what has happened intensify divisions within the ANC and its governing alliance, as illustrated by the pronouncements of veteran ANC leaders like former president Kgalema Motlanthe, former finance minister Trevor Manuel and the ANC’s head of economic transformation, Enoch Godongwana, who challenged senior party leaders to produce evidence that business manipulated global markets to undermine President Zuma?
  •  Will what has happened around the finance ministry see the succession battle for the leadership of the ANC, which has already started, intensify and how will it influence the chances of various aspirants?
  • How long will it take for international investor confidence in the South African economy to return and how much will President Zuma be blamed for the tough economic conditions that are widely expected to prevail over the coming months?

Al these questions surrounding the position of President Zuma have led to much speculation about what will happen to, or around, him regarding the ANC and its alliance. Various commentators have been spinning out predictions/guesses. But there are so many variables and possible responses by himself and other key political entities that a multitude of scenarios can be constructed. Exact predictions are virtually impossible.

What is certain, however, is that Mr Zuma in one way or another will dominate the South African political scene in the months to come.

The one thing that ‘Nenegate’ has already changed is that we have not enjoyed the traditional political news ‘silly season’ that usually prevails over the December holidays.

Opposition parties have already illustrated that they will be losing no time to exploit the opportunity to attack the president’s credibility. And a number of carry-overs from 2015 are sure to make a strong comeback during the course of the year.

We can expect some probing questions about the real reasons behind the removal of Mr Nene as minister of finance. One of the key questions is which South African plane leasing company was involved as ‘third party’ in the deal between Airbus and South African Airways.

Likewise, the relationship between Mr Zuma, members of his family and associates with the controversial Gupta family business conglomerate is set to remain under scrutiny.

In this regard it is interesting that Mr Pravin Gordhan, at the time of his re-appointment as minister of finance remarked: “It's time that individuals or groups of individuals stop playing with state entities, whether they are SOCs (state-owned companies) or other government components as if it’s a personal toy from which you can extract money when you feel like."

There are also other ghosts from the past that are sure to make a reappearance during the course of the year, some of them in court cases.

For one, the controversy about the so-called security upgrades at Mr Zuma’s private Nkandla residence is sure not to disappear. The civil action against his personal architect has to go to court at some point and is likely to reveal in public embarrassing/compromising details that thus far have been kept under wraps.

Then there are corruption charges against Mr Zuma that have been withdrawn, and also the attempts to have them reinstated, the scrutiny of the Seriti Commission of Enquiry into the arms deal and allegations by some “that a powerful business family, the Guptas, who are close to Zuma and have major interests in uranium mining, has been pushing hard for the nuclear deal and may have influenced Nene’s dismissal”.

It can be expected that questions about the nuclear procurement programme and most of the other controversies in the midst of a tight economic situation will from the word go feature strongly in parliamentary and public political debate.

We will soon know – during President Zuma’s State of the Nation address to a joint sitting of Parliament on 11 February – if the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will again try to disrupt proceedings, or change tack to project itself as a serious and responsible opposition.

Even with a nationwide municipal election taking place this year, the position of Mr Zuma is sure to be the dominating political factor for most of the year, unless he unexpectedly leaves the scene early.

Also read: Silver lining to Zuma’s bungling – his grip on power is slipping

by Piet Coetzer

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