President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma seems to drift from one accident to another, but there are now indications that he has big plans for his second term. Rather than standing down, or stepping aside, he seems determined to leave behind a substantial legacy.

First, he has made sure he will not become a "lame duck" president. Many leaders find that their power ebbs rapidly away during their final term, because their anticipated successor becomes the de facto number one. Zuma, however, has generated uncertainty about the outcome of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 2017 leadership elections and so kept himself in play.

The baton might eventually be passed to ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa; it is now virtually impossible to appoint anyone else as deputy state president. Zuma, however, has enabled Zweli Mkhize to rise to the office of ANC treasurer-general, from where he can still campaign successfully and seize the presidential prize in 2017.

Zuma has also kept alive the option of a third term for himself, as ANC president at least. A confrontation between Ramaphosa and Mkhize might threaten to divide the ANC along provincial and ethnic lines, and Zuma could then serve a third term in order to avert a dangerous split. The state presidency could then be occupied by a "nonfactional’ candidate.

Zuma has sanctioned propaganda campaigns in favour of African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and long-serving minister Naledi Pandor. He could justify the rise of one or other of these to the Union Buildings by playing the competency card (they have been presented as very capable), the gender card, and the "modified Zulu" card (they both enjoy a saleable ethnic inheritance).

Second, Zuma seems happy to capitalise on the weakness of the organised left. The co-option of public-sector and mineworker unions has been accompanied by an alienation from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Alleged radicals such as Numsa’s Irvin Jim will use fiery rhetoric to outflank the ANC on the left but this will probably not stop Zuma from shifting government economic policy to the right. Breakaway unions and new leftist parties, including the Economic Freedom Fighters, will ultimately have to negotiate informal coalitions with the incumbent ANC, and such deals are likely to be concluded on terms highly favourable to the liberation movement.

Zuma has apparently developed a medium-term succession plan in the Treasury. This envisages Tito Mboweni as a finance minister, who will outlast Zuma’s own presidential term. Mboweni’s race, it seems, can be used to trump his ideological unpalatability to the centre left.

Third, Zuma is preparing to use the National Development Plan (NDP) to address some of the most intractable obstacles to growth in the economy. The sternest test of Zuma’s determination will come after May, when he will have to confront the many political obstructions to his plans to improve public-sector productivity, to professionalise the public service, and to centralise government procurement.

Beyond core state reform, the NDP is more a symbol than a bible. It quietly advances a style of policy-making in which evidence and reason play a greater role. But it is mainly a cloak for renewed sectoral bargaining around "hard issues".

Incoming deputy state president Ramaphosa, and the new ministers for planning and monitoring in the Presidency, may well be tasked with knocking heads together and negotiating lasting settlements to hitherto intractable problems.

In the education sector, the idea of an "NDP-based rethink" is already being used to encourage a rapprochement between policy makers, teacher unions and officials. The "NDP approach" is also likely to be used to resolve conflicts arising from health system reform, in energy policy and the minerals sector. In all these cases, negotiation between antagonistic groups could result in an unexpected reconciliation of political, business and labour interests. Zuma’s second term may yet surprise us.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.