President Jacob Zuma is seen with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize at the ANC’s national general council last month. Picture: SOWETAN
President Jacob Zuma with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SOWETAN

WHERE was I? Oh yes, Jacob Zuma. The president has made it abundantly clear this year already, just in case you hadn’t picked it up around December 13 (the Saturday) last year, that he doesn’t think he did anything damaging by removing Nhlanhla Nene from his job as finance minister late in the day on December 9, replacing him with a political nonentity, Des van Rooyen, before reappointing Pravin Gordhan to his old job just ahead of Asian markets opening that Monday.

Quite what went down in those fraught few days is almost impossible to describe in detail yet. Stuff will emerge over time, no doubt.

But one chilling thing is clear — Zuma didn’t change his mind because his close party colleagues made him see the error of his ways. The president simply bowed to the politics of the moment when enough key party seniors threatened that they would not be able to support him should he fail to reverse his decision.

There were a number of meetings with Zuma, and around him, at the time. One, we know, involved some senior bankers, alarmed at what a financial meltdown in the approaching week would do to the country. Maria Ramos, Colin Coleman and Stephen Koseff spoke to Jeff Radebe and African National Congress (ANC) treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize early on the Sunday.

But there was also an informal meeting of some members of the ANC national working committee with Zuma later that day. We can presume Radebe and Mkhize were there. It was at this meeting that Mkhize tried to explain to Zuma what the monetary, fiscal and economic effects of his appointment of Van Rooyen would be, beyond what the markets had already done to the rand and government bonds.

Zuma, though, couldn’t see the problem, so some or all (certainly enough members) of the meeting told him bluntly if he continued to imperil the future of the country they would withdraw their support of him as leader of the party. That got through. It was a political threat, not an economics lecture, and Zuma understood it instantly.

I have thought about this over the holiday. Some people in this saga were heroes behind the scenes long before the bankers appeared on the setting. My gut suspicion is that the guy we still owe thanks to for an intact economy (however badly mauled by its own chief custodian) is Mkhize.

His threatening to pull his support would have shaken the president. Zuma is barely able to keep the ANC under control in his own province of KwaZulu-Natal and only just managed to get a sympathiser elected provincial leader last year after endless delays to the elective conference. Mkhize is a former leader of the ANC government in the province and losing him unexpectedly could have damaged Zuma significantly.

So alarmed was the president by that Friday meeting, I am reliably told, that he called Nene to offer him his job back. Nene turned him down. The only other two people worth asking were Gordhan or Trevor Manuel.

When Gordhan got the call, he must surely have had conditions, particularly on the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the nuclear build and South African Airways. His antipathy towards SARS boss Tom Moyane is obvious and Zuma will probably have to sacrifice him. Being the pure political animal that he is, Zuma would have perfectly understood Gordhan’s conditions. That’s politics.

But that is also it. The fact is that the president never actually agreed with the people pressing him to change his mind because of the economic damage Nene’s firing was doing. He merely bowed to their political threat.

My fear is that once played, that political hand is now done. It will have lost its force and Zuma will already be thinking hard about how to neutralise the people who threatened him. Or, at least he would be thinking about how to deal with such a threat if it is ever put to him again.

He has a lot to do still. After Nene, he had the outlines of a wide Cabinet reshuffle in his pocket, much of it dictated to him by business cronies. Already, the powerful Gupta family has been able to ensure that one of its selections is now minerals and resources minister. There will be more.

I’ve read a few comments in the past few weeks about how we’ll be OK in the long run and that we shouldn’t just focus on Zuma. I’m sure the people who write these things mean well but I’m convinced that while he is in power, he is a direct threat to the future prosperity of the country, his party, his friends and, ultimately, to himself and his family.

He won’t care what I think, I know that. But he has lost the public trust and, thereby, of the project to build a new and united nation.

As Songezo Zibi, editor of this newspaper, writes in his brilliant 2014 book, Raising The Bar, "Uniting SA behind a clear set of values therefore can only be done by a leader who is not Jacob Zuma."

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ONE of the most interesting aspects of the Nene shock has been the reaction to it of the Independent newspaper group, bought not too long ago by Iqbal Surve along with promises of support for the ANC and Zuma and with financial assistance from the Public Investment Corporation and Chinese state-owned companies.

Well, the Independent titles have been incredibly critical of what Zuma did which, obviously, I think is a good thing. But something deeply political must have happened to so dramatically change the tone of its coverage. I suspect the hand of South African Communist Party boss and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who has some influence at Independent.

He was one of the names on Zuma’s pre-Nene reshuffle draft. To go, that is. The trust between Zuma and Blade is broken.

Coverage of the Nene affair by the Gupta-owned The New Age has, however, been almost nonexistent, which is the way Zuma likes it. In the end, it means the Guptas win the battle for No 1’s affections and I hear JZ enjoys the company and advice of the editor of The New Age.

So as the camp around Zuma falls apart and reconstitutes itself, it may be helpful to figure out what, if not who, it consists of. Cronies are people who help the president out financially and get government business and favours in return and can sometimes dictate policy. Surve was never one of those. He is (was?) merely a supporter. The rest are mere leeches, dependent on Zuma for jobs.

He likes these people. They always seem to agree with him.

• This article was amended to reflect the fact that the meeting took place on Saturday, not Sunday as previously stated.