Columns 30.7.2016 07:56 am

SA’s Houdini, Zuma, to surprise again?

William Saunderson-Meyer.

William Saunderson-Meyer.

President Jacob Zuma may be grinning and bearing it, but even though he’s a hopeless statesman, he’s not a hopeless strategist.

Even at the best of times, it is difficult when dealing with politicians to sift the wheat from the chaff. At election time, it is well nigh impossible.

The prime objective of all political parties in the closing stages of the local government elections is less to win new voters than it is to reassure the faithful and rally the hesitant.

Only masochists or ideologues schlepp to the polls if they know that the result is a preordained drubbing of the party they support.

That’s why all the politicians duck and dive, exaggerate and lie, with the goal of getting to polling day with the maximum momentum of favourable publicity and supporter optimism, in order to maximise the turnout of their own voters.

At the same time, they will do everything possible to dispirit the supporters of their political foes. There are limits imposed by decency and tradition.

Normally, the president of the nation, while not remaining aloof from the fray, would be careful to ensure that his party’s political involvement was within the ambits of the stature and constitutional obligations of his role as head of state.

This is a concept that President Jacob Zuma has always had trouble with. He is not a man for moral and ethical boundaries.

In Zumaland, Number One is Zuma, then comes the ANC, then comes South Africa and its people. During this election campaign, Zuma has shrugged off his responsibilities as unifier of the nation, protector of the rights of all South Africans.

The DA was, he told a Tembisa rally last week, the “brainchild” of the white oppressors. “Where does a black person get the guts to associate with the oppressor?” he demanded rhetorically.

The answer is coded but obvious. One doesn’t hobnob with the oppressor. One fights and destroys the oppressor. This is not far removed from the race hate of the EFF.

That such sentiments come from SA’s head of state is a reflection of how hopeless Zuma is as a statesman. But he is not a hopeless strategist.

His mobilisation of voters along race lines signals that the ANC is moving left to accommodate what it perceives to be the bigger threat of EFF populism, rather than to the right to counter DA inroads.

And, as the National Party demonstrated in its nasty apartheid petrie dish over the course of 46 years, race politics works well in SA.

Although these are merely local elections, Zuma is playing for perhaps the highest stakes yet, in a career studded with audaciously successful political gambles. He has energetically fronted the ANC campaign at rallies.

He is literally the ANC’s face in the scores of thousands of posters and billboards that feature his toothy smirk.

If the ANC incurs serious losses it is unlikely that Zuma can survive the ensuing internecine party warfare to serve out the full term of his presidency. Such losses might start the falling of the dominos.

Of course, even the best polls can be wrong. And however gatvol the average ANC voter is, they have a deep emotional connection with the party of liberation and with a party that, for all its faults, has done a lot for the poor.

So Zuma is by no means down and out. SA’s own Houdini might yet again slip his constraints to emerge triumphant.

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