Zuma digs in heels ahead of Sona

President Jacob Zuma is adamant he will deliver his State of the Nation address (Sona) on Thursday, despite calls for him to step down.

The Mail & Guardian has reliably learned that Zuma told senior ANC leaders during a meeting at his official residence this week that he would reject any attempts to force him out as the country’s number one before Sona.

“He [Zuma] has made it clear he would not accept any decision influenced by any ‘counter-revolutionaries’, including opposition parties. He said if it meant he should face impeachment and lose all his presidential benefits, he was prepared for that as a matter of principle,” said an ANC insider close to Zuma.

The M&G understands that Zuma has also rejected advice from some of his closest allies, who pleaded with him to resign because there was little they could do to help him remain in power. Instead, he apparently told them he needed more time to prepare for a smooth handover.

“He said he will resign but not now. He said it will happen before the party launches its election campaign for the 2019 elections,” said the ANC insider.

The ANC’s top six officials were expected to meet Zuma on the sidelines of the Cabinet lekgotla this week to inform him of the decision by the party’s national working committee (NWC) that he must step down as the country’s president.

Four NWC members told the M&G that there was consensus that Zuma needed to step down as a matter of urgency, in line with the party’s strategy to win back lost support ahead of the 2019 general elections.

One NWC member sympathetic to ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said one of the main concerns during the NWC meeting was Sona. “We discussed this thing for almost five hours. People want to shut down Cape Town. Some of the MPs say they can no longer afford to be embarrassed. The impeachment, the fraud and corruption charges that he is facing are very serious. He is appealing, yes, but this is costly for the ANC.

“Now people want to see change. The ANC is regaining momentum. His [continued] existence will dampen the whole situation. What we have decided is that people should go and tell him: ‘For your own good, you should just volunteer on your own.’ If the impeachment comes, he will lose everything.”

ANC surveys have shown that Zuma was partly to blame for the party’s decline in electoral support since he came to power in 2009.

The new ANC leadership is also concerned about the negative effect the court judgments against Zuma and allegations of state capture are having on the party. But many in the party are also cognisant of the negative effect his forced removal as president would have on the party’s performance, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which is the reason the ANC wants him to voluntarily step down.

Said an NWC member sympathetic to Zuma: “The biggest issue for the ANC is Jacob Zuma’s support in KwaZulu-Natal and Free State, which have politically matured. If Zuma is recalled or forced to step down, the party could lose up to 20% of their support in the upcoming 2019 elections. You must not underestimate the reach of the likes of [provincial leader Sihle] Zikalala … and pushing uBaba out will do more harm for the ANC than good. Look at what happened after Mbeki was pushed; we can’t afford to go through that again. In essence, Zuma needs to make the decision.”

To minimise the effect of Zuma’s departure, some in the ANC have suggested that a candidate from KwaZulu-Natal should take over as interim deputy president of the country. Names that have been mentioned include former ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize, ANC MP Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe.

There’s also fear that Zuma’s recall would split the party and deepen existing divisions.

“He [Zuma] will be advised [by the ANC top six officials]  that he needs to consider the court processes against him and what the opposition is going to do with the motion of no confidence. We aren’t sure how many people in the ANC will vote with the opposition and here he won’t have an opportunity to decide his own legacy,” said the NWC member sympathetic to Zuma. “He must consider his legacy and reflect on what has harmed the ANC and him. It’s that word: Gupta. He must consider if he wants to disappear, persona non grata, or does he want to be remembered as someone who did well.”

Members of the ruling party understood that recalling Zuma would not bring unity and were wary of playing into the hands of opposition parties, who would take aim at Ramaphosa next in their quest to destroy the ANC, the member added.

The third NWC member the M&G spoke to said there was no other option but for Zuma to step down to protect the ANC’s electoral prospects. However, the matter needed to be handled with sensitivity to avoid a split.

“Let’s give him a chance to think it [stepping down] over and we engage him so that it’s a win-win situation for the ANC. Because I’m afraid of a situation that may come back to us, like a split or others leaving out of anger,” the NWC member said.

“Being pushed and bullied sometimes can bring about humiliation and you know where there is humiliation, there is despair and rejection. And where there is despair and rejection, there is always a split or a divorce.”

Despite claims that Zuma was remaining defiant in the face of the call for him to resign, the third NWC member expressed optimism that the president would see reason and do what was best for the party if he was dealt with fairly.

“I think let him be given a chance … he will help us [by stepping down]. He will tell us where to from now,” the member said. “I don’t think that if things are explained and he is shown all the possible challenges that he could face and all the issues that could face the organisation, that it would be difficult [for him to voluntarily resign].”

This week, the provincial executive committee (PEC) in the Eastern Cape called for Zuma’s removal to be fast-tracked, saying there had been enough calls from South Africans for this to happen. But ANC Free State co-ordinator William Bulwane said the Eastern Cape PEC had overstepped its boundaries.

“I think the Eastern Cape PEC has crossed the line; it is not a provincial call to make. As the Free State, we are not party to any discussions about whether he should leave or not,” Bulwane said.

Zikalala said no provincial structure should pronounce on the Zuma matter. “The structure mandated to deal with this matter is the NEC [national executive committee] and the NWC. I believe there are processes to that effect. All of us should respect processes because they are important. Otherwise, we are going to undermine the cohesion of the organisation,” said Zikalala.

The Western Cape ANC, which supported Ramaphosa’s bid to become ANC president, said it would convene a PEC meeting to discuss Zuma’s future. “We are meeting on Monday and we’ve always been very critical [of Zuma]. Our last statement is that he must go to the integrity commission. We will have a similar statement,” a Western Cape PEC member said.

He added: “A lot of provinces are not happy and people within the ANC don’t want him to do the Sona … We’ve bent over backwards for him; the ANC tried to make a graceful exit but we have to do what’s in the best interest of the ANC. For now, we are trying our level best to have a smooth transition.”

The presidency was unable to comment by the time of going to print.

See “Parties unite to trip up JZ over Sona” and “‘Orderly’ speech to go ahead,” Page 5

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