ANALYSIS: Zuma and Juju are besties again. What's going on?
They were pals, then sworn enemies, and are now pals again because they share a common enemy
The current phase in South African politics has come full circle.
This has been the era of Jacob Zuma, a man who beat the odds to become president and became the biggest danger to the state while in office.
After surviving a rape trial and fending off corruption charges, he outmanoeuvred Thabo Mbeki, once the most influential man on the continent, to take leadership of the ANC and the country.
Zuma’s time in office was defined by spectacular corruption and fierce political battles, including within the ANC and its alliance. It led to Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and biggest affiliate Numsa being booted out and a realignment in labour, with political affiliation tilting away from the ANC.
One of the intraparty battles saw Zuma and the leadership of the ANC Youth League go head to head, leading to the expulsion of some of the league’s top leaders.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was quintessentially an anti-Zuma force, leading the factional battle from outside the ANC. EFF leader Julius Malema became Zuma’s nemesis, fighting him on various fronts – in parliament, in the courts and on the streets. As the state capture project intensified, the ANC became progressively powerless and unable to hold Zuma to account. It was up to opposition parties, civil society and the media to expose and mount resistance to the Zuma-Gupta contagion.
The ferocity of the EFF’s campaign against Zuma, first on the Nkandla matter and then state capture, led to it dominating the political space and enjoying widespread media coverage, quite disproportionate to the size of the party.
“Pay back the money” and “Zupta must fall” captured the attention of the nation. While the EFF polled below 10% in the two elections they participated in, people outside their natural base lived vicariously through the party, egging it on to keep the pressure on Zuma and the ANC. The EFF was most distinct in parliament, scuppering convention and disrupting the usually staid proceedings. Their combative style led to repeated incidents of violence and EFF MPs being forcibly ejected from the House.
Most of the EFF’s tirades were directed at Zuma, with their MPs branding him “a thief”, “a rapist, “a criminal” and “a constitutional delinquent”. Verbal and physical combat became routine at all the former president’s parliamentary appearances.
The EFF lost the centre stage once Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC leader last December. Ramaphosa drew media and public attention as the coming man.
Dealing with the Zuma problem was up to him, not the EFF.
Just two months after winning the ANC’s 54th national conference at Nasrec, Ramaphosa became president of the country.
While the EFF led the charge against Zuma for years, it was the new leadership of the ANC under Ramaphosa that held the axe above his head, forcing him to resign.
Zuma has joined the ranks of tragic political figures, trying to find his place in history. He faces trial for corruption and testimony at the Zondo Commission has implicated him as the chief enabler of state capture.
Ramaphosa, meanwhile, slotted into the role of president like Cinderella’s foot in the glass slipper.
He has been rallying national spirit, talking up investment, tackling problem areas in the state such as SOEs, the SA Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority, and adapted easily to the world stage, including hosting the Brics summit.
While he remains vulnerable in the ANC, Ramaphosa is the statesman Zuma could never be.
It must infuriate Zuma greatly.
But he is not the only one riled by Ramaphosa’s achievements over the past 10 months and the general goodwill towards him.
Ramaphosa makes it difficult to sustain the EFF’s brand of rage politics.
With Zuma gone, the EFF has had to find alternative targets on which to breathe fire.
Treasury officials, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and the media have all become substitute targets, having to take heat for the fact that EFF leaders’ secret funding channels were exposed and shut down. With the ANC aiming to amend section 25 of the Constitution by the end of March to allow for land expropriation without compensation, the EFF is facing the prospect of fighting the election without a major campaign issue.
With no Zuma and no land debate, the EFF is in desperate search for something distinct that can be used to whip up emotion. After an incredible rollercoaster ride, Zuma and the EFF’s interests suddenly coincide.
Both are fragile politically and are dependent on populist rhetoric to keep hold of their support bases. Both are claiming to be victims of the new order and the media for the investigations that implicate them in corruption.
Both aim to inflame sentiment by trying to convince their supporters that their political opponents are anti-poor and anti-transformation.
Social media is an effective campaign tool for both Zuma and the EFF, with the personal pulling power of the leaders as well as bot armies influencing discourse in their favour.
Their social media strategies and support bases now overlap.
The most surprising turn of events is the warming of relations between Zuma and Malema.
The EFF leader, who repeatedly called Zuma “a criminal” and “an illegitimate president”, was among the first welcome the former president to Twitter.
Zuma said in an interview last week that if properly guided, Malema had potential as a political leader.
“I don’t think we have disagreed with Malema politically, we have disagreed with other things,” Zuma told Africa News 24-7. “I believe his welcoming me indicated some of his very positive thinking and understanding.”
What is not yet clear is whether the reconnection between Zuma and Malema is only expedient because they have a common enemy in Ramaphosa, or whether the cessation of hostilities was brokered by their backers.
The fightback against Ramaphosa and anti-corruption campaigners is certainly more effective with the Zuma and EFF forces aligning.
The election period will be volatile with Zuma is fighting for his life and the EFF forced to show growth at the polls if it is to survive the next cycle.
With the ANC beset by factional battles, it might not be prepared to withstand this new dynamic.
The ground is unsteady as SA crosses over into another explosive political year.