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Former President Zuma plays political chess

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Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspapers / Taken on December 4, 2023 – Former president Jacob Zuma, centre, has announced that while he will not leave the ANC, he will not campaign for the party, and that he will instead voter for Umkhonto Wesizwe, the new party he has recently launched.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The date of December 16 has had historical significance for three reasons. Firstly, it was known as Dingane’s Day following the victory of the Boers against King Dingane’s Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River [Impi yase Ncome] in 1838. Secondly, it retained this significance when it was changed to Reconciliation Day after 1994.

Thirdly, on the political front, this date was important because that is when the African National Congress (ANC) formally launched its military wing Umkhonto Wesizwe. This followed the apartheid government’s banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) which was the first splinter party from the ANC in 1959.

Zuma has added another significance to this date. On Saturday December 16, 2023, he attended the celebrations of his MK colleagues in Soweto. Immediately thereafter, he addressed a media briefing about a historic decision he took.

At the centre of his announcement were two issues. The first one was that he would not be campaigning for the ANC in 2024 as requested by his organisation. The second announcement was that Zuma would not vote for the ANC but for the newly formed political party called Umkhonto Wesizwe. Noticeably, Zuma says he will remain a member of the ANC until he dies.

This announcement has triggered a heated debate among many South Africans. While some found it confusing to some extent, others were threatened by it. Acting out of fear, hysteria, and anger, some politicians opted to go to social media to express themselves. There were those who described Zuma’s announcement as being indicative of his ‘boredom.’ Others called on the ANC to invoke Section 25 of its Constitution and expel Zuma from the party.

In the chess language, such comments did not amount to a good move! They were tantamount to embracing the politics of parochialism and failing to see the bigger picture.

When faced with a challenging situation, real leaders refrain from making comments while still engulfed by anger. They digest the situation, look at it from different angles, think broadly, and then make appropriate comments. Trying to extinguish fire using a bucket of petrol cannot be a wise move. Instead of extinguishing the fire, such a move would worsen the inferno.

There are a few issues which only people with a sober mind can understand. The first is that Zuma strategically decided not to join any of the existing political parties as some had thought – even hinting that he might join the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) since his supporters like Mzwanele Manyi, Carl Niehaus and others had done.

Secondly, Zuma deliberately made his announcement on the day in which MK was launched in 1961. Implicit in this action was that he was reminding the nation and the world about how the country came to what it is today. He wanted to remind the audience that MK was formed for a particular reason and that such a reason has either been forgotten or is being deliberately ignore by the current leadership in the ANC.

The third reason is that Zuma did not make his announcement in his hometown of Nkandla or his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Instead, he consciously chose Soweto where the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown in 1955; where leaders such as Nelson Mandela resided, and where the 1976 Soweto uprising began. This shows that the choice of the venue was not a thumb suck. It was carefully selected.

This announcement has put the ANC to the test. Fikile Mbalula, the ANC’s Secretary-General has hinted that the party is considering litigating against the use of MK. While the ANC has the right to do so, my advice would be that it should not take this step. The same happened in 2009 when the Congress of the People (COPE) was formed. The ANC lost that battle. Why waste time on this issue instead of focussing on preparations for the 2024 election?

The call for the ANC to invoke Section 25 of the party’s Constitution and expel Zuma is not cogently thought through. Doing this on the eve of an election and when the party is not at its strongest point would amount to political suicide. The impression that Zuma has no political relevance and that he no longer enjoys support or only does so in KZN is a misreading of the situation. Acting against Zuma would be tantamount to a wrong chess move.

There is another view that Zuma is acting out of anger and that he and President Ramaphosa are not friends. Without summarily dismissing this view, the question becomes: are Zuma’s seven concerns valid or not? Is he the only one to raise such concerns? The ANC must use Zuma’s announcement to do self-introspection devoid of emotions.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University.