ANALYSIS: Russians nuked Zuma’s hopes for a political comeback
There is still some support for him in other strategic places, but that will soon fade for the former Teflon man
How much of a factor will Jacob Zuma be on the political scene from now on?
It could have been a major talking point that the former president did not turn up at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration.
It was not.
It was too big a moment for the country to be eclipsed by Zuma’s unspoken political statement. Of course it raised eyebrows that Ramaphosa’s immediate predecessor did not arrive and sent one of his wives instead.
The day before, Zuma hinted outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court that he was too busy “trying to stay out of jail” to attend.
Zuma is clearly aggrieved by his legal and financial troubles, which he is blaming on the state.
The court will have to decide, as part of Zuma’s application for a stay of prosecution, who should bear responsibility for the fact that the corruption case has been dragged out for about 15 years at exorbitant cost. The state argued that it was the strategy of Zuma’s legal team to contest any possible thing they could to fend off the case, while saying there was political meddling and malice behind the prosecution.
While these are matters for the judges to weigh up, the politics around Zuma are in the court of public opinion.
When he was forced into resigning in February 2018, Zuma was infuriated and bitter. Up to then, he truly believed he was politically invincible and indispensable to the ANC.
It was no surprise, therefore, that he did not attend Ramaphosa’s first State of the Nation address.
But later Zuma began attending meetings of the ANC national executive committee and also joined the party’s campaign trail.
This is because he realised that he needed to maintain his contact and influence in the ANC to remain politically relevant. Zuma also had many irons in the fire in terms of the election battle.
There were several parties that he either instigated or tacitly endorsed, such as Black First Land First, the African Transformation Movement and Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Content Movement.
But, just like at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017, when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was used as a front for his faction, Zuma’s gamble failed.
With Ramaphosa now firmly in charge of the country, Zuma’s hopes of eroding his presidency and regaining traction are all but lost.
The gaggle of people around Zuma, headed by ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, will soon realise that the former president is now a dead weight.
Several people in that faction, including Magashule, Nomvula Mokonyane, Des van Rooyen and Faith Muthambi, have legal troubles of their own coming, having been named in the Zondo commission on allegations of corruption. While it makes sense for them to rally together, Zuma has no power to protect them.
The biggest stack of evidence before Judge Raymond Zondo is against him.
The reduced number of political players at Zuma’s court appearances is an indicator that his relevance is waning. People in the ANC need to stay onside with the dominant faction if they are to have access to power and resources.
The splinter groups around Zuma will soon run out of sponsored funds and will find it increasingly difficult to drum up support for him.
But Zuma is not yet out of the game.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC’s provincial leaders continue to walk on eggshells around Zuma so as not to worsen internal divisions. The ANC in the province has come through a debilitating period due to the factional warfare, and the leaders there know that any move that can be perceived as sidelining Zuma could reignite the battle.
The new provincial cabinet includes people who were proponents of the “radical economic transformation” campaign, which remains a proxy for the Zuma faction. This means that there is still some support for him in strategic places.
Within the next few months, Zuma will be have to come face to face with Zondo to respond to the allegations against him relating to state capture.
Zuma’s strategy for dealing with these allegations is so bizarre it’s almost masterful.
He has said repeatedly, including last week, that there is “not a shred of evidence” against him emanating from the various commissions of inquiry.
Because he is not interrogated about this blatant falsehood, he can continue to convince his supporters that all the testimony that has been presented is negligible or can be proved to be untruthful.
When he does appear at the commission, he will no doubt claim that the abundant and damning evidence has been concocted by his political enemies.
But the indicator that the game is truly up for Zuma came not from his enemies but people he counted as his greatest friends: the Russians.
In an interview with the Sunday Times recently, Russian ambassador to SA Mikhail Petrakov distanced his government from attempts to rig the nuclear deal in their favour.
Petrakov said the Russian government had no knowledge of the letter Zuma and former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson tried to get Nhlanhla Nene to sign in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015.
The former finance minister testified at the Zondo commission that Zuma had placed him under enormous pressure to sign the letter, which would have served as a form of a guarantee from the national treasury, for the more than R1 trillion nuclear deal.
“Whatever guarantee document South Africa had or did not have, I do not know. We simply know nothing about it. This is your internal matter and a question rather to former president Mr Zuma,” Petrakov said.
Zuma, meanwhile, effectively incriminated himself in an interview with Business Day in March by confirming he had wanted to give the deal to the Russians. This would have flouted any pretence of a fair tender process.
Zuma still has pockets of support and sympathy, and will continue to make his presence felt, including through his Twitter feed.
As time goes by, he is bound to become increasingly isolated and rancorous, and his faction will continue to instigate trouble for Ramaphosa.
But politically, the once Teflon man is now yesterday’s man. That is a bitter pill for him to swallow.