As fear eclipses loathing among MPs, ANC looks elsewhere for courage
Julius Malema may or may not have spoken to more than 60 ANC MPs who have promised to throw in their lot with the opposition when parliament votes on a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday.
But even if he has, I am not convinced that, come Wednesday, Zuma will not be in front of a crowd somewhere in South Africa reading out a speech to mark Women's Day in his capacity as head of state.
That the political tide has turned against the president even in his own party is undeniable - but it has not turned decisively enough to have Zuma packing for Nkandla or Dubai.
While it is clear that his popularity - even among the ANC's loyalists - has been badly damaged by the revelations of how he aided and abetted what surely is the greatest heist against the state and the people of South Africa this side of the 1994 democratic breakthrough, Zuma still has control where it matters most for his survival - the ANC national executive committee.This is the primary reason Malema, United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa and their fellow campaigners for the motion of no confidence are unlikely to get enough ANC MPs voting with them on Tuesday, even if National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete surprises us all and grants a secret ballot on the matter.
The truth of the matter is that much of the decision-making in the ANC, especially a few months before an elective conference, is driven by fear.
There may very well be more than 100 ANC MPs, including such senior leaders as its deputy president, who believe that the sooner Zuma leaves, the better are the party's chances of retaining power come 2019. But their greatest fear is what happens immediately after Zuma is booted out of the Union Buildings.
If the motion succeeds, the party will have to convene a special NEC meeting where its new presidential candidate would be selected.
Still smarting from the defeat, Zuma would certainly go to that NEC meeting with one thing in mind - meting out punishment against his "betrayers" by insisting that a candidate other than Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa be chosen. If previous failed attempts by the NEC to recall Zuma from office are anything to go by, he still wields tremendous support in that body and his supporters can frustrate any attempt to choose someone he does not approve of.
This would leave his detractors in parliament with a stark choice: obeying the NEC line and voting in a Zuma-appointed candidate who would probably use the office to shield Zuma and the Guptas from a proper investigation; or defying the NEC and nominating their own candidate with the hope that the opposition would then vote with them.
The latter option would surely split an already fractured party.
Even more ominously for Zuma's opponents in the ANC is the likelihood that his removal from office by parliament may harden his attitude, causing him to seek a third term as party president at the elective conference in December.
As the run-up to the 2007 ANC elective conference proved, Zuma is a master when it comes to the game of winning support among the ANC's rank and file by playing the victim. Are Ramaphosa, Lindiwe Sisulu and Jeff Radebe confident they would succeed where Thabo Mbeki failed in 2007 - that they could defeat a Zuma crying "political conspiracy"? I think not.It seems to me that most of the president's ANC foes - be they in the NEC or on the ANC benches in parliament - are pinning their hopes on the December conference. They are banking on the party branches to elect a new president, and NEC members who would be less beholden to Zuma and his cronies than most of the current crop.
If that strategy succeeds, they are unlikely to wait for the next state of the nation address in February. They would almost immediately demand that Zuma, who would no longer have control over the party and its structures, leave office the same way he forced Mbeki - through Malema and others in 2008 - to vacate the Union Buildings.
However, the strategy is entirely dependent on those opposed to Zuma actually winning the conference. What if they don't? What if, realising that his faction is losing, Zuma supporters "collapse" proceedings - thereby allowing him to be at the helm for another six months, or a year?
Given the risks entailed in this strategy, voting with the opposition on Tuesday would - at face value - appear like the most obvious option for ANC MPs opposed to Zuma.
But most of them are so afraid of the likely reaction of the Zuma-controlled NEC that they would rather give the golden opportunity a miss and pray that the party branches do the right thing...