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Nothing doing: President Jacob Zuma at the official launch of the Trans Africa locomotive at Koedoespoort in Pretoria — while top ANC officials were fretting about his future. Photo: Kopano Tlape/GCIS
Nothing doing: President Jacob Zuma at the official launch of the Trans Africa locomotive at Koedoespoort in Pretoria — while top ANC officials were fretting about his future. Photo: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

On the Friday before last, when outgoing finance minister Pravin Gordhan was encouraging the nation to “organise”, President Jacob Zuma was flown by helicopter into the deep rural Eastern Cape to launch an agricultural development project. In a soothingly anodyne speech, he encouraged South Africans to buy from smallholder farmers.

On the following Saturday, while civil society groups and opposition parties met to plan how to involve the public in their protests, Zuma launched a low-cost housing rental scheme outside Pietermaritzburg and invited the public to comment on a draft law on the real estate sector.

On Tuesday, when other leaders of his party were in tense meetings to determine his future, and arguably that of the country, he was standing on the footboard of a locomotive scattered with confetti.

Zuma, it turns out, did not need to scramble to deal with the massive political fall-out caused by his Cabinet reshuffle because his strategy was already in place. In a sense, it had been in place for a decade, because it was the same strategy that got him elected ANC president in the first place: by invoking consensus.

“We need to be united, we need to solve issues by discussing and listening to one another, and finding a solution all together,” Zuma told the House of Traditional Leaders less than eight hours before he announced that fateful Cabinet reshuffle and fracturing the ruling alliance. (In days to follow it would emerge that he had fired at least some of the members of his Cabinet by media statement, without speaking to them directly.)

The year 2017 has been dedicated to former ANC leader OR Tambo, Zuma told the traditional leaders, because he exemplified what South Africa needs now.

“He dealt with issues on the basis of consensus, which was an indication that people were ready to listen to one another, not to fight, not to shout, but to find logic, to find solutions on problems,” Zuma said.

A short time later he abruptly summoned the ANC’s top six leaders to a meeting at which he informed them for the first time about the Cabinet changes he would make only hours later. We now know that three of them disagreed vehemently with what he intended to do.

“We are declaring it the year of Oliver Tambo because we want to deepen unity of the nation … South Africans seem to be very agitated, they seem to be very violent,” Zuma said.

Days later both the South African Communist Party and the trade union federation Cosatu were expressing their fury at his unilateral shake-up of the executive, some in his party were threatening opposition protests with violence and his government was hinting darkly about the unlawfulness of them.

“How do we handle ourselves as groups in the country?” Zuma asked rhetorically in his speech on Thursday last week.

“If, for example, some among us feel our issues have not been addressed, what do we need to do? We need to say immediately: ‘Let us address the issues.’ I am certain there is no issue you cannot find a solution on.”

At his many public appearances that followed, he ignored questions hollered in his direction over a wall of bodyguards by increasingly agitated journalists; the only answer they received was being shoved out of the way.

Also during that time, Zuma’s office issued more than a dozen press statements. Not one dealt with his reasoning behind the reshuffle or the fall-out from it.

His strong — declared, if not acted on — focus on unity and consensus is not recent. It is the platform on which he came into power.

“We belong to the ANC, which has its own policies,” he said when asked about his policies in mid-2007, as he was honing his message before the Polokwane elective conference that would see him unseat Thabo Mbeki. “Individuals contribute to the unity of the policy. If your views get accepted by the ANC, then they get accepted as the views of the ANC.”

If he was to become ANC leader, Zuma held, he would merely be the hands to implement the collective will of the party.

On Wednesday, the ANC’s national working committee (NWC) seemed to confirm leaks from its meeting, which suggested those who had criticised Zuma had come under heavy fire and had been told to mend their ways and put unity first. Or, as the formal statement on the meeting put it: “They have further acknowledged that their public dissonance on the matter was a mistake that should not be committed again.”

Those unnamed officials were the only individuals to take any responsibility for recent events. National officials had acknowledged that they could have done better in dealing with the Cabinet reshuffle, the NWC said.

Again, as had been the case with everything from the poor local government election results in 2016 to the Nkandla scandal, responsibility for failure was collective.

On Wednesday, when a wide range of organisations were calling for a national shutdown on Friday, Zuma announced that he had had a “very, very successful” meeting with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, his counterpart from the Central African Republic. A highlight, he said, was Touadéra’s commitment to building a memorial in the CAR, where South African soldiers were killed in 2013.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet