Imagine a spider that spins an elaborate web to trap unsuspecting prey. For a while, the web serves its purpose, capturing the targets that the spider wants. Because all spiders know the mechanics of their own webs and how to navigate them, this spider never gets trapped.
Then one day, it behaves recklessly and falls into its web, becomes trapped and gets stuck in its own creation. It is a rare occurrence, but when it does happen, the result is death.
Now imagine President Jacob Zuma, who is as adept at manipulating power politics as a spider is at weaving its web and ensnaring its prey.
There has come a point when he, too, has plunged into the web he wove and is battling to free himself. For him, the penalty will be political death.
Since his election in 2007, Zuma has been a master of political manipulation. Shortly after dispatching former president Thabo Mbeki to the political wilderness, Zuma began slaying those who had carried him to victory.
One by one, the leaders of the so-called Polokwane revolution fell by the wayside. They were marginalised from decision making and reduced to being bystanders and spectators.
Conspiracy theories circulated about how senior leaders were plotting to undermine him and ensure he did not finish his first term.
Zuma’s first Cabinet reshuffle, in November 2010, was the first wielding of the axe and sent a stern warning that he was fully in charge and should not be messed with.
As with all the subsequent Zuma reshuffles, this one made little sense since it appeared not to punish duds and reward stars. It had nothing to do with accelerating service delivery and improving performance.
|How Jacob Zuma Fell Into His Own Web|
He repeated the senseless exercise in 2012, six months before the elective conference in Mangaung.
In the run-up to the conference, conspiracy theories abounded and a climate of fear took over as security agencies were accused of meddling in factional ANC politics.
Rise and fall
The triumph at the Mangaung conference was the apex of Zuma’s reign.
With the distrusted elements of the Polokwane revolution having being dealt with in the five years in between, the conference delivered Zuma a national executive committee (NEC) that was overwhelmingly his.
It may have been the most lightweight executive in ANC history, but it was his. He could now run the ANC with the knowledge that his mob outnumbered the rational voices on the NEC and the national working committee.
In several provinces, his allies also consolidated their control.
Another senseless reshuffle came in 2013, and a more comprehensive overhaul after the 2014 general election added to his sense of comfort.
The spider had perfected his web. Suspecting and unsuspecting targets kept tumbling to a cruel fate in Zuma’s web.
But then the spider got reckless.
Feeling invincible, he forgot that the world was bigger than his web.
He added a new bunch of disasters, scandals and blunders to the ones he had already accumulated on his way to power and during his first term of office.
Society turned on him and those who constituted his power web. Paranoia set in as he viewed critics as enemies.
Instead of reading the writing on the wall and correcting his ways, his arrogance and sense of impunity grew. In his head he believed he could get away with anything because his web was strong and powerful.
Then, in March 2017, Zuma fell into his intricate web. And got trapped.
Given the momentous events of the past seven days, the social grants crisis feels as if it happened ages ago.
But it was actually just yesterday that Zuma and his ever-chewing minister reacted coldly and folded their arms as one of post-apartheid South Africa’s worst crises unfolded and impoverished grant recipients anxiously clenched their teeth.
Just as he had done in the past, Zuma giggled his way through this crisis and haughtily mocked those who raised the alarm.
It was in March, too, that Zuma, acting against the prescripts of his party, flew to the Eastern Cape to lend support to a low-ranking leader who was defying ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe.
By backing Andile Lungisa’s right to contest the Nelson Mandela Bay ANC chair, Zuma was crumbling the party’s Constitution to bolster Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s bid for the party leadership.
And he was very directly declaring war on Mantashe and those in the ANC leadership who were insisting that the rules be adhered to.
It is now documented history that he lost that fight at the NEC meeting last weekend – a great humiliation for the leader, who had declared that the “ancestors agree” with Lungisa’s election.
It was a wounded and incensed Zuma who, on Monday, initiated steps to remove finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.
The fact that he believed a so-called intelligence report that was probably drawn up by out-of-sorts mampoer consumers in a Lichtenberg kroeg, says a lot about his state of mind on Monday.
Zuma’s actions that day were a further plunge into his spider web, the trap that he would find himself completely entangled in by the end of the week.
Zuma is now stuck in that web and has no idea how to get out.
And now everyone – his victims, potential victims, former allies, internal foes, opposition party rivals, civil society and broader South Africa – is united in a quest to keep him there and never let him out.
No matter how much he wriggles and tries to disentangle himself, this is the web in which his political life will most likely end.
Let the significance of this week not be lost on us.
This was the week in which the ANC’s deputy president, its secretary-general and its treasurer-general publicly denounced the president.
Having finally found the voice that South Africans have been urging him to locate, presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa is unlikely to go back to his corner and behave.
He has just been handed the leadership of the rebellion that will see Zuma leave office early.
Likewise the treasurer-general.
The usually cautious Zweli Mkhize, who chooses his words and battles carefully, took an unprecedented path, issuing a statement rebuking the reshuffle.
He, too, will no longer be measured in the face of Zuma’s reprobate behaviour.
Mantashe, who had tasted blood in his victory in the Lungisa matter, was uncompromisingly blunt in his condemnation of the reshuffle that was drawn up “elsewhere”.
Let us not underestimate the boldness of the SA Communist Party’s (SACP’s) open demand for Zuma to go.
Once firmly in his corner, even during unforgivable scandals, the SACP has now become the organisational fulcrum of the “Zuma must go” drive.
Even a reprieve for its deployees and the addition of another in the reshuffle did not buy the SACP’s loyalty.
Zuma has now also lost the two large public sector unions that form the backbone of labour federation Cosatu.
It was inconceivable six months ago that the once-loyalist National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union – which engineered the ouster of former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and metal workers’ union Numsa from Cosatu – would now stand in opposition to Zuma.
As Zuma twisted and squirmed in his web, some of his ministers were applauding calls for him to go.
Party members serving in different parts of the state – from Parliament to the legislatures to the state – were aligning themselves with the campaign for his removal.
Senior and mid-level ANC leaders were talking with opposition leaders about the best way to bring forward his demise.
The days and weeks to come will bring us the most hi-octane action since the demise of apartheid.
As his opponents mobilise to deliver the final blow, Zuma’s own allies will be mounting a counteroffensive to defend their man and, hopefully, disentangle him so he can live another day.
Expect lots of noise from the direction of the balloon-shaped youth leader, the ever-chewing women’s leader and the porn-star military veterans leader.
Expect the grimy hand of South Africa’s most corrupt family, its media interests and the shadowy fake-news machinery to be in full force.
The fightback will be rough, loud and possibly physical. Make no mistake, this will be an ugly time.
This will not just be a fight about one man’s career and the quest to free him from his spider web or keep him there until there is no life left in him.
It will be about the state, its resources, probity, morality and South Africa’s future.