In the daunting maze that is South African politics one leader seems to have charted his way to the Presidency, and he is being assisted by his opponents on his way there. EFF leader Julius Malema will likely become the deputy president of the country after the 2019 general election, if the ruling ANC continues on its current trajectory.
He is being enabled by the DA and AfriForum, the former also deriving value from its partnership with the EFF. Perhaps the greatest enabler for Malema is none other than President Jacob Zuma himself.
The endgame for Malema and DA leader Mmusi Maimane appears to be the reduction of ANC support at the 2019 polls to below 50%. In that scenario the DA would be between 30% and 35% with the EFF in the 15% ballpark. That would mean that no party has a clear majority, forcing a coalition government.
The DA has been effective with its motions of no-confidence on the president in parliament and their court challenges against Zuma's administration. Everytime the no-confidence debate is held Zuma's excesses are aired like dirty laundry under the full glare of live TV cameras. That also places the ANC in a position where it has to close ranks around the leader while projecting itself to the electorate as Zuma's protector. That is not good for the ANC's chances in the elections. Also bad for the ANC is Zuma's egregious track record in courts.
It is clear that by accepting the EFF's support so that it could govern some municipalities the DA has rendered itself indebted to the EFF. At any time the EFF can withdraw its support for the DA and allow the ANC to return to power. The DA knows that it needs to hold on to areas it governs in order to organically grow itself. That gives Malema leverage and power going into 2019.
AfriForum has not realized that by litigating against Malema for his utterances that prejudice their mainly white, Afrikaans speaking constituencies they are giving him the platform to propagate his messages. The messages, which are mainly about return of the land to the indigenous people and black economic freedom, resonate with the majority which is black and poor and they give him political capital. He needs "street cred" after the EFF helped the DA to dislodge the ANC from key metros following the August local government elections. Constructive engagement with Malema would be the only effective way to serve the interests of AfriForum constituencies.
Malema's most effective stratagem entails getting under Zuma's thick skin and making his opponent make costly blunders. The EFF leader has figured Zuma's weaknesses and he exploits them. Chief among these is Zuma's linear public relations strategy. Zuma has not defined his presidency like his predecessors did. Nelson Mandela was about nation building, reconciliation and social cohesion. His successor Thabo Mbeki was about the African Renaissance and claiming this as the African century. All statements and actions of the two could be located in their respective narratives.
It is not clear what Zuma stands for, which is why it is easy for his enemies to locate many of his actions within the narrative that he is incompetent and corrupt. His approach is that of focusing solely on the stakeholders that keep him in power: ANC members and the party's core base of voters. He doesn't seem to care much about anyone who can't help him stay at the top. As a result of his poor PR strategy Zuma has no credible surrogates. Those who defend him often lack credibility and their narratives tend to sound desperate. One such story is that Zuma is under attack because he fights white monopoly capital with the Guptas. He is accused of enriching a family of Indian immigrants who appear to be preparing to relocate to Dubai with their loot. That can't be benefitting black people.
Another Zuma weakness is that he is a brawler, he loves to fight and he never backs down. Added to that is lack of issue management capabilities in his office. Almost all issues around Zuma end up being PR crises. Malema is wont to bait him to fights he knows Zuma can't win. One example is the Nkandla matter, which Zuma spread over both of his terms simply because he would not concede defeat. He dragged the matter through to the highest court in the land where he was given an embarrassing smack. He could have killed the scandal after one news cycle and spared the ANC embarrassment.
True to form, Zuma seems determined to anoint his own successor. KZN ANC structures have raised the name of outgoing AU chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor at Luthuli House. That would put her in pole position to succeed him as the country's leader. This strategy is risky. Whilst Dlamini-Zuma is a competent and reputable leader, she may fail to unite the party behind her for the same reason that she failed as candidate ANC deputy president at the party conference in 2007. Then she was seen as a Mbeki puppet. That she's Zuma's ex-wife would make her rise appear dodgy. Most importantly, she hasn't carved her own political identity away from Zuma. No one knows where she stands on the topical issues of corruption and "state capture", for example.
All current indications are that Zuma's faction will win at next year's ANC elective conference. He has the support of powerful provinces like KZN, Mpumalanga, Free State and Bokone-Bophirima. He also has the backing of the leagues.
A Dlamini-Zuma win may lead to a split in the ANC. Provinces like Gauteng would not see much prospects of electoral success with a Zuma "proxy" at the party's helm. The palpable Zuma fatigue among urban voters would ensure the ANC's poor showing at the polls even if it were to stay united.
Malema has demonstrated many times that he can't stand Maimane and would find being his deputy humiliating if the EFF were to be a junior partner governing with the DA. Given the choice between heading to the opposition benches and entering into a coalition with Malema the ANC would give away the deputy president's office to Malema for the seats it would need to lead a new government. The latter appears to be comfortable around deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and could be his deputy. His first preference remains Ramaphosa's predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe.
There is only one way the ANC can remain in power and govern on its own nationally. At next year's conference the party must come up with fresh policies and a program of action that will speak to the current needs and concerns of the electorate. Most importantly it must elect leaders that will signal a departure from the direction the current leadership is on.
Otherwise get used to the idea of Julius Malema as Mr Deputy President!