15/05/2017 14:47 BST | Updated 23/05/2017 16:28 BST

Ferial Haffajee: Zuma's Defences Are Floundering

This year Zuma’s fight back plan is not working. Here’s why.

James Oatway / Reuters
President Jacob Zuma addresses crowds gathered to celebrate his 75th birthday in Kliptown, Johannesburg, South Africa, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/James Oatway


President Jacob Zuma is deploying the full arsenal available in his traditional fightback armoury, but it is not working this year.

Monday's march on the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban to protest "judiciary overreach" by the provincial African National Congress (ANC) is an old trope in the president's bag of tricks.

When the president previously faced rape and corruption charges, his troops also converged on the courts to rally in his support.

Early reports show this march, led by the provincial leader and presidential family member, Super Zuma, did not build the head of steam previous marches on the courts resulted in. But it wasn't insignificant, given the number of bigwigs that marched along. Willies Mchunu, provincial premier, even termed courts "the political arm of the opposition".

Zuma goes back to his base in KZN when he faces adversity because of the party's strength in the province – one in five ANC members is from here.

But ANC MP Makhosi Khoza and former premier Senzo Mchunu are the public faces of opposition to the president from within his stronghold. Khoza has written publicly about the moral disintegration of the ANC and of its fraying internal democracy. Mchunu is using his power to break Zuma's stranglehold on the province by publicly supporting the bid of Cyril Ramaphosa for ANC president.

A second presidential tactic that is no longer working is Zuma's comfort zone of casting himself as the victim. In his birthday week in April, Zuma faced an unprecedented set of protests calling on him to step down. The president's supporters organised a birthday rally in his honour. When such countervailing rallies have been held for the president before, they turned into rollicking shows of force for a leader facing a hostile terrain.

By contrast, Zuma's 75th birthday party in Kliptown, Soweto was like a seniors afternoon tea. It was attended by only one member of the party's top six executives: the deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.

A key reason President Zuma's fight back plan is flailing is because he is no longer the leader of a strong Tripartite Alliance. Cosatu is a no-go zone after he was booed and denied a speaking platform at the May Day rally two weeks ago and was forced to leave in a 12-car cavalcade.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) is in open revolt against the president and hardly a day passes when one or other party leader does not make a public call on Zuma to step down. SACP members make up a large complement of his Cabinet, which adds to the presidential besiegement.

With three elements of his usual survival tactics now tattered, President Zuma is an increasingly isolated figure. His presidential convoy is getting larger and the numbers of bodyguards he uses are rising, say analysts. His key political confidante is the Intelligence Minister David Mahlobo.

Because his has been a presidency of scandals, Zuma has always faced civil society opposition. The president has faced numerous anti-corruption court cases, but the pace of challenges he faces in courts has grown substantially.

Opposition parties as well as civil society organisations like Freedom Under Law and the Helen Suzman Foundation are challenging the president in court almost weekly now.

From revolt, the president is now facing an organised resistance at a time when his traditional survival armour is failing him.

** This story was amended to reflect the following:

ANC National Chairperson and member of the party's top six leaders did not attend President Jacob Zuma's birthday party in Kliptown in April.

KwaZulu-Natal remains the ANC largest province by membership. It has 158 199 members (audited to 2015) but because the ANC has lost members, this equates to one in five members, not one in three as reported.