SUNDAY TIMES - Masses (in the NEC) are Zuma's best bet
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Peter Bruce, 2017-03-19 00:00:00.0

Masses (in the NEC) are Zuma's best bet

However the social grants scandal plays out, and however the myriad disasters that the Zuma administration visits upon South Africa hurt us, the only thing that matters to President Jacob Zuma is that his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is elected president of the ANC at its conference this year, in his place.

Bathabile Dlamini, Zuma's social development minister, could run naked down Commissioner Street in Johannesburg overturning the miserable little stalls of informal traders and screaming "shoot the poor" and not a thing would happen to her.

Zuma needs her to help get Dlamini-Zuma elected. It's that simple. It's why he got Dlamini elected president of the ANC Women's League. They have votes in the succession election.

It's why Collen Maine, in hock to Zuma's cronies, the Guptas, was made "leader" of the ANC Youth League. They also have special votes in the succession election.

It's why his c abinet is so big - 35 ministers and 37 deputies. Most of them are also members of the ANC's powerful national executive committee. They were elected onto the 86-member NEC (there are another 18 ex officio members) at Mangaung in 2012 and then drafted into the c abinet.

Why? So that if Zuma needs to reshuffle his cabinet in the run-up to the December conference, he simply replaces one NEC member with another, thus keeping, he calculates, most of the NEC on side at any one time.

In the ANC the NEC has the power to recall a sitting head of state. But Zuma has it sewn up at least until December. Then the game changes. At the same time as a new party leader is elected, so is a new NEC. If it isn't loyal, Jacob and Nkosazana are in trouble.

There is just no way Zuma, as diligent a political calculator as he may be, can manipulate so complex a game so far ahead.

And his power is visibly waning, particularly among ordinary MPs and, according to the party's own research, in the branches.

But watch in wonder as he tries to change the rules, to pick up the soccer ball and run with it, creating a whole new game in an effort to wrong-foot his opponents.

His comments on changing the constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation were blatantly populist and they have been, for the moment, buried by other ANC leaders.

So where does he go next? The only thing I can see working for him, if he's lucky, is to bring the elective conference forward to try to push Dlamini-Zuma's election through while other contenders flounder and scuffle among themselves.

It would work like this:

He reshuffles his cabinet soon but keeps it serene. He leaves the Treasury untouched. He brings Dlamini-Zuma on board. The actual job won't matter too much. Perhaps give her social development and she could see out the Cash Paymaster Services contract for one more year as per the Constitutional Court order on Friday, and triumphantly deliver a new state-run distribution system this time next year.

Dlamini could even stay on the payroll. She'll need the money.

The ANC policy conference goes ahead in June. (The documents I've read are oddly anodyne. I was expecting a much more threatening tone than I found.)

Soon after the policy conference, Zuma announces he is stepping down early as leader of the party in order to concentrate on governing.

A row breaks out in the NEC about whether or not to call an early elective conference. Zuma's crowd wins the argument. The election is brought forward to October.

Cyril Ramaphosa, supposedly the other serious candidate to succeed Zuma but who has been missing in action for much of his return to politics, is caught unawares. His chosen deputy, Gwede Mantashe, cries off. He's had enough, comrade. Ramaphosa strikes a campaigning pose but he's really there for a coronation, not a fight.

And as Dlamini-Zuma and her new deputy party leader, Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza, waltz off into the sunset crowned and happy, Zuma's future is assured and the rest of the party is left wondering, just as it was when it left the fight to stop Zuma to Thabo Mbeki about this time in 2007, why it didn't have a real candidate.

If I were them, I'd get Zweli Mkhize and Lindiwe Sisulu into the game as loudly and as quickly as possible. They're sound and sensible and decent people. Dlamini-Zuma can't be given a free pass to continue where the father of her children left off.