President Jacob Zuma survived a near putsch at an ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting over the weekend, but it is clear that his power is waning.
The road ahead for Zuma’s opponents will be long and arduous, as the ANC emphasised unity and roundly rejected calls for Zuma’s removal as president. Retribution for the surprise move against Zuma — led by his own ministers — is likely to follow, but a pending cabinet reshuffle has been thwarted, at least for now.
What is also clear from the extended NEC meeting is that Zuma is oblivious to his leadership defects, saying he is being targeted by powerful opponents and that he believes he is a good leader.
His closing address to the NEC was classic Zuma in which he played the victim, saying there was a plot against him by foreign governments, with three attempts at poisoning him. He also defended his relationship with the Gupta family in the face of harsh criticism that his ties to the family were compromising him.
This is the first time Zuma has spoken out about being poisoned. However, he did not reveal the perpetrators.
The Hawks are currently investigating a poisoning allegation against one of his wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli, after Zuma fell ill two years ago.
At least four NEC members said Zuma told them, after the debate about him stepping down, that he knew the foreign countries that were after his head, and alluded to the members who called for him to step down being used by outside governments to fight him.
Zuma’s backers managed to fight off the onslaught unleashed against him on Saturday — the first day of the meeting — after tourism minister Derek Hanekom led the call for him to step down as president of the country.
He was supported by health minister Aaron Motsoaledi; his deputy, Joe Phaahla; NEC member Fikile Xasa; ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu; and ANC head of economic transformation Enoch Godongwana.
While a secret vote was proposed at the meeting, it was shut down by Zuma backers, who argued that such a vote was a departure from ANC tradition. They said NEC members were able to speak their minds at the meeting, which made a secret vote unnecessary.
A lengthy discussion was held on state capture, and Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family came into sharp focus. According to sources sympathetic to the president, he explained that the family’s relationship was not with him but with his son.
At a media briefing on Tuesday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said the matter of the removal of the president was closed after the NEC did not support the call for him to step down.
The ANC had put together a programme of 15 items to discuss at the meeting, one of which was the "negative narrative" directed at Zuma. "That item was discussed in detail as one of the many items this weekend," Mantashe said, referring to the marathon NEC meeting. "In our view it was discussed sufficiently and exhaustively and is a closed matter." Mantashe said the three-day talks were "robust, difficult and candid".
On Sunday, a group of ministers had threatened to resign if Zuma remained as the country’s president. They made the dramatic threat on the sidelines of the meeting.
The Financial Mail understands that they had to be persuaded not to do so because of the consequences of such a move.
Mantashe on Tuesday said no mass resignations were expected.
"The ANC gives you a task, you become minister of x ... and you think that when you like, you can just walk away? There is no party that works that way," Mantashe said.
"So mass resignations will have quite serious consequences. We are a movement, we are not a contentious organisation of people who are pulled together by their conscience. No, we are an ideological organisation — that’s why when we report to work we do it to improve ideological clarity of members of the ANC ... We can’t be a free for all."
The day before the NEC started, the ANC national working committee met with a group of veterans who were concerned about the state of the party.
The veterans had proposed that the ANC hold a consultative conference before it goes to its elective conference in 2017.