President Cyril Ramaphosa is examining framing an Elders Council in which his predecessors, including Jacob Zuma and other ANC veterans, could assume a constructive role as an advisory body to both the ANC and government.
The likely new role for Zuma is among the options on Ramaphosa’s table, following his remarks last week that Zuma would be assigned various tasks.
Although Ramaphosa has not said so, the decision could be interpreted as a move to contain Zuma, who has been fingered for trying to publicly undermine Ramaphosa by conducting himself as if he was still the head of both the ANC and the country.
Zuma arrived to loud cheers at the ANC’s January 8 statement rally last week, as well as at its election manifesto launch, which took place at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, on Saturday.
There was speculation earlier in the week that Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa would make a grand entrance at the 62 000-seater stadium in a show of unity.
But Ramaphosa and his deputy, David Mabuza, arrived shortly afterwards. Although the crowd cheered when the ANC’s head of elections, Fikile Mbalula, chanted that the president had arrived, the reception was relatively muted compared to the rousing welcome that Zuma had received.
Elements in Ramaphosa’s camp are wary of Zuma’s new-found zeal to be back in the public space, harbouring suspicions that he is trying to forcefully bargain with Ramaphosa to ensure that his court troubles disappear.
The mushrooming of smaller parties formed by Zuma allies – for example, the African Transformation Movement (ATM) – has also been flagged as part of a coordinated strategy to weaken the ANC in the upcoming general elections later this year and spark a backlash against Ramaphosa.
“WE WANT THIS THING TO BE HANDLED QUIETLY, BUT THE MAN IS PROVOKING A BIG CONFRONTATION. HE WANTS A GUARANTEE THAT HE WILL NOT GO TO JAIL, BUT HE CANNOT BE GIVEN THAT AS WE WOULD BE INTERFERING WITH THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE JUDICIARY,” SAID THE NEC MEMBER.
Head of the ANC presidency Zizi Kodwa said that Ramaphosa was seriously considering a role for Zuma to work together with former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe.
Kodwa said the announcement could be made in due course, once Ramaphosa had sat down with Zuma and everyone involved to clarify their roles and responsibilities.
“He is already conceptualising the idea of the Elders Council, which is intended to help him as an advisory council on very important issues both in the ANC and in government,” he said.
“He has not announced it yet, but this is what he is thinking about. He has not yet spoken to Zuma, so he cannot say the council is established.
“At the end of that meeting, he may want to ask who else – in addition to the former presidents – could be a part of the Elders Council.”
Added Kodwa: “The concept and notion would have an element of former heads of state and former ANC presidents, so they could advise both in the party and in government.”
He said the Elders Council would not take away the constitutional rights of any ANC structure, such as the party’s decision-making body, the national executive committee (NEC).
But as president, Ramaphosa was looking at using the resources that he had available, said Kodwa.
A member of the NEC said the party was mulling over a strategic deployment that would see Zuma moved out of the way as he was proving to be a massive headache.
“We want this thing to be handled quietly, but the man is provoking a big confrontation. He wants a guarantee that he will not go to jail, but he cannot be given that as we would be interfering with the independence of the judiciary,” said the NEC member.
Ideally, added the source, “Zuma will be found guilty and be given a suspended sentence so that we can all move on.
“We can have informal discussions with those that we may have relationships with and put forward that view, but we cannot – and would not – make any demands to them.”
There had also been fears in the ANC that Zuma’s role in the ongoing election campaigns could derail the party’s efforts to garner more than 50% of the votes and thus retain its clear majority.
Zuma’s opponents said that his involvement would alienate voters because of the criminal charges that he is facing.
The ANC Veterans League was among those planning to block any attempts to deploy Zuma to campaign for the party.
“The Mangaung resolution says that people who are implicated in any corrupt activities must not be the face of the ANC,” said an official from the veterans league.
Last year, the National Prosecuting Authority charged Zuma with corruption, racketeering and money laundering, and he has appeared in court a few times.
Zuma will be back in court in May when he will try to push for a permanent stay of prosecution.
“We are going into the most contested elections, and voters are still cynical about Zuma. He is tainted. It depends where he is deployed,” said the veteran.
However, indications are that Zuma remains popular in KwaZulu-Natal and that efforts are being made to rope him into the election campaign.
Zuma’s supporters in KwaZulu-Natal want him to be deployed to a strategic position, which may include involving him in diplomatic interventions across the globe.
Kwazi Mshengu, the ANC Youth League chairperson in KwaZulu-Natal, told City Press on Friday that Zuma was famous across the country and commanded a lot of respect internationally.
“HE IS ALREADY CONCEPTUALISING THE IDEA OF THE ELDERS COUNCIL, WHICH IS INTENDED TO HELP HIM AS AN ADVISORY COUNCIL ON VERY IMPORTANT ISSUES BOTH IN THE ANC AND IN GOVERNMENT,” HE SAID.
“In our view, he can be used for any deployment that the ANC may deem fit,” he said.
“You would know about the role he played in resolving the issues in Burundi and other parts of the country when he was still the deputy president, and subsequently the president.
“It is this type of deployment, where he thinks he can make a contribution, [that is viable],” Mshengu said.
ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu said a peace mission somewhere could be the best option.
“The thought of deploying Nxamalala is welcomed. It will help the country,” Mthembu said.
General secretary of the SA Communist Party Blade Nzimande said he was hopeful that Zuma could play a constructive role in the country, on the continent and in the world.
“Former presidents carry a particular stature, and they have got certain experiences which may enable them to play a role in creating, hopefully, a better world. But I do not know what the president meant. It is up to him what he does,” Nzimande told City Press.
He said Zuma’s deployment might be helpful to the country and elsewhere.
“We will see what he (Ramaphosa) has in mind about that,” Nzimande said.
Dakota Legoete, the ANC’s acting national spokesperson, said assigning Zuma an important task would help the ANC and the country.
“As a leader in his own right, and also as a member of the ANC, it will help because whether we like it or not, there are people who still feel very strongly that he is a leader. We cannot take that for granted,” he said.
Legoete added that South Africans were creating “a brouhaha” around Zuma.
“The deployment of all former presidents is a practice in the ANC that was started by former president Nelson Mandela. The same could not be done by president Mbeki to president Zuma.”
For now, he said, Ramaphosa had invited Zuma and all former presidents to come and join the ANC election campaign.
“I think it is a good practice because if somebody is still productive or not sick, as in the case of former president Zuma, he can still help the ANC in its campaign,” he said.