It was not the Night of the Long Knives, it was Two Nights of the Sharp Knives.
When Karima Brown broke the story on Saturday that the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress was debating a motion by Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom that president Jacob Zuma should step down as president of the republic, everyone was taken by surprise. It was simply unheard of and did not make sense. A minister in Jacob Zuma’s cabinet using the NEC gathering to ask his boss to relinquish his position as head of state was something out of the movies and not in the real world of South African politics.
For the next two days, including Monday, the NEC engaged in one of its most important debates since its election in Mangaung in 2012. Observers reported that Zuma and his supporters were ambushed. They did not see it coming. In fact some of them had skipped the meeting to attend a wedding of fellow comrade Mzwandile Masina in Stellenbosch. Hearing that the anti Zuma faction had mounted the unthinkable against their boss, they rushed to the airports and flew to Pretoria to defend their benefactor.
By Sunday evening president Zuma was under siege. The motion was serious and for the first time NEC members who were generally outspoken found their voice and added to the chorus asking the president to step down. By Monday afternoon, the pro Zuma Premier League had re-mobilized and gaining the upper hand. By the end of the meeting, the president had survived the onslaught and was free to see Ugandan president Museveni who was visiting. He quickly returned to St. George’s Hotel to ensure that the NEC would not recall him in the same way that his predecessor was recalled in 2008.
Finally, “Uphunyuka Bemphethe” was let off the hook after his supporters had mounted a spirited fight back to save the day for him. There was high drama and the emotions were so inflamed that General Bheki Cele and Nathi Mthethwa nearly came to blows, it is reliably learnt.
The supporters of Zuma are celebrating yet another victory as their flawed leader hurtles from one crisis to another. Those NEC members that stood up against Zuma will be temporarily outlawed from the presidential inner circle. They are already called counter-revolutionaries and agents of foreign forces bent on regime change. The truth of the matter is that this defeated faction is actually the one that loves the ANC and the country more. The courage to take on their president who has appointed them to cabinet is nothing less than heroic and patriotic. When the true history of the ANC is written, they will be hailed as among the best cadres of the former glorious movement. For now, they have to take the punishment stoically.
The ANC leadership elected in Mangaung has failed the party and is damaging the country. President Jacob Zuma, captured by the Gupta family, facing serious charges and embroiled in endless scandals, is a liability to both the ANC and South Africa. In preparation for the 2016 local government elections, ANC cadres went door to door without “uvalo” to persuade the people of South Africa to vote for the party. The electorate gave them a condition: remove Zuma and we will vote for you.
The leadership of the ANC ignored the sentiment and the consequences were devastating. The ANC lost support in all the provinces except in KZN. The most important metros in the country, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay fell to the DA/EFF alliance. The ANC was shocked and shattered. Instead of addressing the real problem which is Jacob Zuma, the party took collective responsibility and emerged without a Recovery Plan to deal with electoral losses going forward. As things stand, the ANC has no idea what to do to reclaim the trust of the electorate pending the 2019 elections. The party is helplessly and haplessly praying that it wins again in 2019.
The State of Capture report released by former public protector Thuli Madonsela in October, was damning on Zuma. He tried to stop the release of the report but failed. Ordinary South Africans, the electorate, are watching developments in the ANC and are worried that Zuma and his Premier League are prepared to destroy the economy of this country for their selfish interests. Come 2019 the electorate will deliver their verdict and the ANC will never be the same again.
The reason why the ANC won’t self-correct is that between now and the 54th national conference the two ANC factions will be at a no holds barred war for the soul of the former glorious movement. While the Zuma group may prevail in the 2017 national conference, this victorious faction will not win the 2019 general elections. The people of South Africa, with the ANC faction defeated in the 2017 conference, will simply not give the damaged ANC the 51% required to run government.
Sello Lediga is a political historian and author.