Out-of-touch Zuma finds he can't have his cake and eat it
Limping towards the end of his final term, President Jacob Zuma appears to be isolated and estranged from those he once counted on for support.
Cutting the cake every January to mark its birthday has become a ritual for the ANC.
Without much creativity, the setting is usually the same every year: a beaming President Jacob Zuma, flanked by the ANC's top officials, with his hand on a sizable knife slicing through a giant cake decorated in the party's colours.
For good measure, there is usually enough space in the frame to feature the alliance partners, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande.
But not this time. The arrangement of the photograph to mark the 104th birthday celebration, in Rustenburg last week, was telling. Not so much its composition, but rather the conspicuous absence of regular figures. The only noticeable faces around Zuma were those of North West premier Supra Mahumapelo, ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize and deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.
The usual suspects may well have had valid explanations for why they were not part of the ceremony. If anything, the cake-cutting symbolised the growing schism between Zuma and his old friends. It showed a Zuma who is increasingly isolated - with only a few of those who initially sang his praises remaining by his side.
Even his January 8 statement - the annual speech that marks the date that the ANC was founded in 1912 - was thin on detail. There was nothing substantive about plans to revive the ailing economy.
He dedicated a good few paragraphs to critics, lashing out at those the ANC referred to as "seeking to rule the country through the courts", and labelling opposition MPs who disrupt parliament as being part of a counter-revolution.
It was his weakest January 8 speech by far. Perhaps it was indicative of a man limping towards the end of his term, one whose government has run out of ideas and one who sees enemies around every corner.
The rebuke for detractors also featured prominently in the subsequent TV interviews that he did on the day.
In true Zuma fashion, he always has someone else to blame for his woes. He is always a victim of some conspiracy. Even his problematic relationship with the Gupta family and perceptions of their undue influence over him are nothing more than "politicking" by his detractors.
"Why should [my relationship with the Guptas] bother me? Do you know the Guptas have been the friends of [other] presidents of this country? I'm not the first one," he said in an eNCA interview.
In what could be interpreted as secretary-general Gwede Mantashe's response to Zuma, Mantashe told the Sowetan the next day: "[The Guptas] would not have any influence on the ANC ... So I won't say they have captured the ANC. If they have captured individuals, they have captured those." It's clear who this was directed at.
Zuma also told eNCA journalist Thulasizwe Simelane that the reaction to his decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister had been "exaggerated".
He is clearly out of touch with reality and does not seem to grasp the level of anger within his own party about his decision - which sent the rand spiralling down and breaking record lows.
What Zuma does not get is that the reaction to Nene's firing was more about business demonstrating that it had lost faith in his ability to govern and to take rational decisions in the best interests of the country.
The backlash was less about Nene and more about the choice of the little-known David van Rooyen, who lasted only four days as finance minister.
Even when Zuma told the ANC top six leaders' meeting that he would sack Nene as a minister, the mention of Van Rooyen raised eyebrows - amid whispers of the Guptas' hand being behind the move.
What did not make sense to other ANC leaders was that Zuma could not find one suitable replacement for Nene among the 80-member national executive committee, which ideally should represent the cream of the ANC's crop - although the current crop of NEC members leaves much to be desired.
He only told the SACP and Cosatu of Van Rooyen's appointment in a call an hour before he announced him as minister. In the NEC, only the diehards, depending on how the current leadership vacuum serves them, still believe in Zuma.
Zuma was meant to be the "glue" that united the ANC-led tripartite alliance; instead, he has presided over its destruction. The ANC's alliance partners are at their weakest under his leadership - with him having neutralised the very organisations that put him in power.
Perhaps that was Zuma's way of strengthening his own hand and maintaining a firm grasp on the ruling party.
At a late-night meeting two days after Nene's firing, Nzimande and Dlamini confronted Zuma.
They accused him of allowing the Guptas to control him and allowing the powerful "premier league" - premiers Mahumapelo of North West, David Mabuza of Mpumalanga and Ace Magashule of the Free State - to hound out the left allies.
Such is the trust deficit between Zuma and his one-time allies that they believe that he has a stay-out-of-jail pact with the league - allowing them to call the shots and disregard party processes.
The theory is Zuma was told by the league the only way to avoid jail - with dropped fraud and corruption charges hovering over his head - would be to allow and to help his ex-wife and African Union Commission chairwoman Nko-sazana Dlamini-Zuma to take over as the next president and ensure that she protects him from any possible prosecution in the future.
By now Cyril Ramaphosa knows Zuma never intended for him to be president. His election as ANC deputy president at Mangaung was about Zuma's self-preservation; to prop up his own defective image and assure sceptical investors that the future looks bright. He cares only about himself and now some of his former allies have realised this.
If Zuma wanted to show leadership in the succession race, he would have called out his comrades by now and reminded them of the unwritten rule that the "deputy president of the ANC should preferably become the next president". That was what secured his trajectory to the ruling party's helm.
The Dlamini-Zuma campaign is happening with his tacit blessing.
While talking about the succession race may be considered "foreign" to ANC culture, this has not stopped Zuma from declaring he will not stand for a third term. He affirmed this in his SABC interview on Sunday. He could do the same with the Ramaphosa v Dlamini-Zuma matter, if he wanted to.
The ANC appears leaderless and this vacuum has allowed for the league to fill the gap.
KwaZulu-Natal is split. At a recent protest by supporters of premier Senzo Mchunu, who lost the ANC provincial chairmanship to Sihle Zikalala, derogatory chants were sung about Zuma.
Such disdain for a sitting president had not been in the province since the embarrassment of Thabo Mbeki - by Zuma supporters - when he hosted then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in Durban in 2006.
Zuma may well finish his term as president - if he is lucky. But he is quickly running out of friends.
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