won the ANC leadership battle by choosing Cyril Ramaphosa as his running mate had planted the seed of his own premature demise.
Zuma was well on his way to stunt and reverse the progress of political modernisation since the early 1990s. Ramaphosa, on the other hand, is a contemporary thinker, a sophisticated urbanite, world citizen and constitutionalist.
Zuma’s approach was partly strategy and partly who he was. He is an ethnic traditionalist, a nationalist, a patriarch and a polygamist. His most loyal followers - not including those who side with him because they benefit financially from that association - are black people outside the urban centres.
He - and they - have no problem with the fact that he only has three years of formal education; that he has fathered dozens of children with various women; that he had a private homestead built by the state; that his wives cost the state more than R100m per year; that his rich friends allegedly support him and his family financially in exchange for access to power and favours such as using a military airport as a private airstrip; that he allegedly uses the state’s intelligence services to counter his personal enemies; that he clearly has a very limited understanding of the dynamics of a modern economy.
They also didn’t, unlike so many other South Africans, roll their eyes when they listened to him butcher a written speech or struggle to read a big number. He is uBaba, the leader, the chief.
But it is also strategy. Zuma saw from 2009 onwards how the ANC was gradually losing support among the urbanites and middle class and shifted his energies towards the rural and traditional areas. He called his urban critics “clever blacks” and has been labeled an anti-intellectual by many.
He strengthened his ties with traditional leaders and had legislation prepared that would increase their power, however much that went against the grain of the rapid modernisation process in society. The private ownership of traditional land by its occupants, seen by most agricultural economists as a long overdue solution to landlessness and unemployment, is not even on the table for discussion.
Ramaphosa has a law degree and is one of the wealthiest people in the country. He is married to a medical doctor, Tshepo Motsepe, sister of the billionaire Patrice Motsepe. Ramaphosa is a connoisseur of the finer things in life and completely at home in any international company or on any world stage. He was the chairperson of the Constituent Assembly that gave us our constitution in 1996.
The ANC was never a movement led by rural people, subsistence farmers or ethnic traditionalists. The founders in 1912 were learned intellectuals and the movement was increasingly seated in the cities ant bigger towns.
Zuma is the first ANC president in 104 years without a tertiary academic qualification.
No South African can avoid noticing the vast difference between the approaches and public performances of the two leaders.
The SACP, Cosatu and the main opposition parties, the DA and EFF, all have modern-day political democratic cultures, as does the Numsa grouping. The politics of the influential student movement of the last few months are light years away from being traditionalist or ethno-centric.
Eye on the prize
Ramaphosa is perhaps unpopular in some circles because of his personal wealth and his connection to the Marikana Massacre, but there is no doubt that he has given the modernising elements in the ANC and Cabinet a stronger voice and helped to change the political climate.
He has employed a subtle strategy since his election as deputy president of the ANC in Mangaung in December 2012, establishing a strong presence while making sure nobody could say he was undermining or disrespecting the president. But he has always had his eye on the first prize and has shown remarkable patience in getting there.
On 9 December 2015 Zuma grossly overplayed his hand by firing the minister of Finance and replacing him with a tame and pliable Des van Rooyen. Van Rooyen was the preferred candidate of the Premier League, a pro-Zuma lobby group headed by the premiers of the Free State, Limpopo and Northwest and rumoured to be close to the influential Gupta family. Their critics have called them “rural barons” and “patronage politicians”.
Ramaphosa, a keen spectator at these dramatic events, and his associates emerged much stronger on the other side. The new Finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, is also a strong proponent of modernisation and progressiveness, as are ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize.
There is always the possibility that Zuma could pull a rabbit out of the hat - he’s done that on previous occasions when people said he was cornered - but it seems the cumulative effect of his scandals and blunders, his new vulnerability and the fact that his years of dodging the courts have come to an end, make it increasingly unlikely.
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