On this day in 2008, the then ANC national executive committee (NEC) met to deliberate on the controversial Nicholson judgment.
The die had already been cast. Outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court a week earlier, the then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema had declared “the problem in the country is Thabo Mbeki and his people”.
Malema went on to call for Mbeki to “go – as in yesterday”.
It is now history that by midnight of that fateful Friday news began to filter through that President Mbeki had been recalled by the NEC, a decision buoyed by Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgment which erroneously ruled that Mbeki had meddled in the prosecution of Jacob Zuma.
The Nicholson judgment was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals which concluded the judge had allowed his personal views to cloud his finding. Nicholson, said the SCA, had failed to “distinguish between allegation, fact and suspicion”.
The period was not only precarious for the ANC but for our country. Anything could have happened. Basically, the ANC had effected a bloodless coup and removed a democratically elected president.
Mbeki, gracious throughout that demanding period, accepted his fate and resigned as president. It was the continuation of a bloodletting that started in December 2007 at the ANC’s Polokwane conference where Zuma defeated Mbeki.
The 2012 Mangaung conference followed the same script, with the purging of opponents and some one-time allies who had since fallen out with Zuma. Malema and Kgalema Motlanthe, both of whom had previously exalted Zuma’s “virtuous” leadership, were out in the cold.
This Friday, the ANC leadership will again gather for a special NEC meeting to consider a judgment delivered by the very same Pietermaritzburg High Court.
This time, the finding of Judge Jerome Mnguni, who last week ruled that all decisions taken at the 2015 ANC provincial conference were “unlawful and void”, will be in the spotlight.
As Karl Marx once remarked, history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”. The latest developments certainly give a sense of déjà vu. But this time no one should expect the recall of a president. Unfortunately not.
Unlike Mbeki who had lost the internal leadership battle at Polokwane and was removed by a pro-Zuma NEC, the current NEC is loyal to Zuma and comprises mostly of praise-singers.
But the Mnguni judgment has serious ramifications for Zuma and his grouping within the ANC, hence it will be interesting to see how the NEC responds. It is at NEC level where a decision will be taken on whether to appeal the judgment.
In 2008, following the Nicholson judgment, the NEC said: “The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are among the most fundamental principles in our country’s constitution, which the ANC will always protect and defend.
“We would like to underline that we acknowledge and accept the ruling of Justice Chris Nicholson and reiterate that we will, as always, abide by the decisions of this and all courts in our country.”
Will the same confidence be extended to Judge Mnguni?
I think not. A desperate fightback is to be expected. The outcome of the judgment coincidentally favours Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in the ANC leadership race.
The presidential hopes of Zuma’s preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, depend on the support of KwaZulu-Natal. But like a fizzy drink that has lost its effervescence, her campaign has been flat. The ruling which dissolved KZN’s pro-Zuma leadership basically snuffs out her political ambitions.
The tide has turned, as recent developments in Mpumalanga show. The province’s ANC chair DD Mabuza has been calling for the ANC’s leadership to be determined through consensus rather than exposing the party to another bruising and divisive contest.
This weekend, at the ANC provincial general council meeting in Mbombela, his call for unity was publicly supported by four visiting provincial chairmen: Paul Mashatile of Gauteng, Supra Mahumapelo of North West, Ace Magashule of Free State and KwaZulu-Natal deputy chairman Willies Mchunu.
The latter three are staunch Zuma supporters and have been at the forefront of the Dlamini-Zuma campaign. This shift is significant and demonstrates that the Zuma grouping is increasingly on the back foot.
Another twist in the tale of Zuma’s crumbling empire emerged in the Supreme Court of Appeal last week when his legal team conceded that the National Prosecuting Authority’s 2009 decision to drop charges against Zuma was indeed “irrational”.
This paves the way for Zuma to be recharged and answer to the 783 counts of fraud and corruption that he has sought to avoid for 10 years.
If recharged, he will not be able to continue as president and will have to step down.
Almost every grouping in the ANC agrees that Zuma’s continued presence at the helm would be detrimental to the party’s 2019 election campaign.
So while it is completely unlikely that the outcome of the NEC meeting this weekend will be similar to that of September 2008, Zuma’s days are clearly numbered.