By Rafiq Raji, PhD
When Zimbabwean president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, visited South Africa to woo investors recently, he met with two presidents. Of course, he extended the courtesy first to the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. But he compulsorily had to pay a similar courtesy to comrade president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president of the Republic. Ordinarily, the second visit would be optional. Not anymore. Having won the recent elective conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, Mr Ramaphosa is a president-in-waiting. And technically, as party leader, he could recall President Zuma and take his place. Ideally, the party’s elections would have been best tuned to fit with the country’s elections calender to avoid the current awkwardness. When that is difficult, the president of the Republic usually resigns; recalls himself, so to speak. Actually, some ruling political parties deliberately allow for the incongruity to smooth the transition and allow their new leader adequate time to consolidate power ahead of elections against the opposition subsequently. Mr Zuma is not someone to entertain such good reason but unfavourable politics: he could go to prison for corruption. In any case, Mr Ramaphosa was not his favourite for the position. Had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife, won, he could have happily participated in a co-presidency with a person that bears his surname. Imagine that, though? President Zuma, President Zuma. That would have been something.
Half the table
Mr Zuma proved to be predictably shrewd. Seeing as he could not be sure his candidate would win, he decided to ensure that he had control of what lay beneath the iceberg. Mr Ramaphosa could not recall Mr Zuma without the support of the majority of the ANC’s top 6 and the larger 80-member national executive committee (NEC). In both, Mr Zuma’s allies constitute about half, at least. With half the table onside, Mr Zuma could effectively ensure that Mr Ramaphosa could not move on him too quickly. To do so, Mr Ramaphosa would need something extraordinary to happen. And as president of the Republic, Mr Zuma retains his presidential powers. But that does not mean Mr Ramaphosa is without options. Almost 800 corruption charges hang over Mr Zuma’s head. And the chief prosecutor, Shaun Abrahams, who is favourably disposed to Mr Zuma, has troubles of his own; after a court ruled his appointment was illegal and barred Mr Zuma from appointing his replacement in tandem with frowning with the gavel at why the corruption charges against Mr Zuma were previously dropped. So even as Mr Zuma has appealed the decision at a higher court, the judges are likely to be inclined towards supporting the earlier judgement; which incidentally also empowered Mr Ramaphosa to appoint the new chief prosecutor. In that event, Mr Ramaphosa is likely to appoint someone who would do the right thing: institute corruption charges against Mr Zuma.
An offer that cannot be refused
A shrewd negotiator himself, Mr Ramaphosa could instead use the powers bestowed on him (and likely affirmed by the higher court) to appoint the new chief prosecutor as leverage to force Mr Zuma’s hand. Instead of appointing one who may not be so sympathetic to Mr Zuma, a deal could be reached for him to resign instead and enjoy a quiet retirement. Another ploy Mr Ramaphosa could implement is to fire up public opinion on the numerous sins of Mr Zuma; indirectly, of course. He has been harping on corruption lately, for instance. Public opinion could be so caustic against Mr Zuma in the aftermath that should Mr Ramaphosa fail to act, the citizenry would likely turn on him too. Consequently, Mr Zuma might find it difficult to keep his allies in the NEC onside, thus opening the way for him to be recalled or his resignation demanded.
Of course, Mr Zuma is not likely to sit idly by while these happen. Earlier media reports that he might declare a state of emergency is not yet totally out of the realm of possibilities; as crazy as it sounds. Besides, Mr Ramaphosa could still be hounded; albeit that is now quite difficult with an embattled chief prosecutor. What one is almost sure of is that Mr Zuma is going to increasingly get irritated. When the court asked that his deputy appoint a new chief prosecutor, Mr Zuma explicitly mentioned in his rebuttal how there could not be two presidents at the same time. That was before the ANC elective conference. Another complication is that there would likely now be two opinions on almost everything. Mr Zuma kind of took care of that a little bit. By announcing a free education policy just before the new party president was elected, he effectively forced whoever got elected to move to the left. On a matter that popular and sensitive, Mr Ramaphosa had little choice but to fall in line. And with the land expropriation without compensation matter already mandated by conference, amid bouts of fisticuffs some report, that too has become Mr Ramaphosa’s policy by default. If the current two centres of power persist till February when the 2018 budget would be presented, economists and market participants would likely want to know which part of the likely populist presentation would be rescinded when the comrade president takes over at Pretoria. But now in South Africa, when you talk about the president, people must surely now pause and ask: which one?