What happens when President Zuma, a chess player misses the plot?

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, picture by Gift Ndolwane, CAJ News

I am no chess pro. But I know how a good, a bad, and a very bad game ends. As a chess player, President Jacob Zuma should know that his campaign for ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is leaning toward very bad.

Basic laws of chess

A fool’s mate is usually what all rookies are baptised with when they learn how to move a pony or a castle. This is elementary and for most presidential candidates running for the ruling African National Congress’ top job, nobody seems to be in this category.

The next level is the stalemate, every divisive and cunning player knows how to trigger such an endgame. Every move is important and a single mistake might change the entire ball game. I have learnt that when I’m playing stalemate players every move should be on check.

And the last one is the checkmate. Every winner starts the match with this end goal in mind. In the crowded field, Mathews Phosa, Zweli Mkhize, Jeff Radebe, Lindiwe Sisulu, Baleka Mbete, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are all rooting for that result.

What’s more surprising is how President Zuma is continuously exposing both his King and Queen with each passing day. One would have thought that by now he would have made a truce with his deputy to secure Dlamini-Zuma and a few others some uncontested slots in the top six.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Retracing the steps
It is important to make a few steps back to have a full appreciation of how the President up to now has made fools mate steps.

Towards the 2007 Polokwane ANC elections President Zuma was facing 783 charges and had escaped with a whisker a rape trial. ANC supporters felt President Mbeki was behind all these shenanigans meant to stop his deputy from ascending to power.

With support from SACP, provinces and tripartite alliance partners, Zuma built a formidable base that would power him to Luthuli and later Union Buildings. Mbeki had control of the intelligence that up until Polokwane fed him lies about prospects of victory.

Ten years later, President Zuma finds himself in the same position and this time he is playing the same card that Mbeki played and lost. Just like in 2007 with Mbeki so is it with Zuma now as the relationship with tripartite partners is all but gone.

Most provinces (Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo) have already latently or publicly endorsed Ramaphosa with varying degrees.

This is almost 40 percent of the electorate in December’s conference.
Mpumalanga is divided with Ramaphosa surrogates claiming they enjoy 50 percent of branches. In Free State, the province could easily flip to Ramaphosa Ace Magashule, lifetime chairman in the province, faces his deputy in the province.

North West seem to be the only region that Zuma through his proxy, Dlamini-Zuma, will carry without much struggle though SACP and Cosatu have been doing much ground work.

KwaZulu Natal that was 100 percent behind Zuma in 2007 and 2012 is now evenly split. There are claims that six of 11 regions are backing deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Even if Ramaphosa was to get 30 or 40 percent in the province he would be guaranteed of a clear victory in December in the event that all things remain constant.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (left), Edgar Lungu of Zambia (centre) and Jacob Zuma of South Africa (right)

So why is president Zuma playing like a rookie?
It is difficult to understand the rationale if there is one at all but one thing we know is that even a rat if trapped in a corner will fight for dear life.

President Zuma faces a prospect of a trial he escaped in 2007. This would land him in prison. This possibility also threatens his son, Duduzane, who has largely benefited from an alleged corrupt relationship his father has with Gupta family.

His deputy, Ramaphosa, has been calling for a probe into state capture that implicates the president, his son and family friends. It is believed if Ramaphosa ascends to power President Zuma will be heavily exposed hence the need to stop him.

Zuma has children with ex-wife and one of them has also been fingered in a corrupt top government job. She was appointed as a chief of staff in a government department with no credentials. This equally demonstrate the lacklustre approach both parents have on corruption. One need the other to stay out of prison.

But more than that, both have received financial incentives in one way or the other from the corrupt Gupta family. It is this fear that has seen an often-touted chess pro playing like a rookie.

Trust Matsilele is Zimbabwean scholar finalising his PHD at University of Johannesburg

Fools mate
It is clear the president is headed for an embarrassing defeat just like what happened to his henchman, Andile Lungisa, in the eastern cape region over the weekend. His top surrogates are fighting for survival and this leaves them with no room to flip their provinces toward Dlamini-Zuma’s way.

With no SACP and COSATU support it is unthinkable to see Dlamini-Zuma emerging as a president in December. Those who hint the possibility of vote buying forget that Ramaphosa is a billionaire who can make counter offers.

With Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo already at Ramaphosa’s corner one would have to be an amateur to think fortunes can turn in under three months.

This is the most viable option the president has at this point and one his advisors should be impressing upon him.

Dlamini-Zuma can easily become a deputy president but that can only happen before the conference sit in December. She must bargain for deputy presidency space and a 50 percent split in the top six that will in a way neutralise Ramaphosa’s overwhelming mandate.

Such a move could also salvage her surrogates in Free State, North West and KwaZulu Natal. As things stand each one of them is likely to lose their hold on provinces should Ramaphosa win in December. ANC politics is about patronage and the one who controls the state decides where, when and how to dispense it.

If Dlamini-Zuma and Zuma are to survive post December 20th this is an option to seriously consider.

There is no way Zuma will deliver presidency to Dlamini-Zuma based on the above scenarios I have already painted. It is with the same argument that Ramaphosa will not lose the December 20th election.

Since 1994 every other leader who won ANC elections enjoyed support of his Secretary General. Mantashe knows the numbers, he knows the branches and he probably knows how 50 percent plus one of those delegates will vote.

As it was with Eastern Cape so shall it be with ANC elective conference in December. The more Dlamini-Zuma delays negotiating with Ramaphosa the closer Lindiwe Sisulu edges closer to the deputy president position.
The fears of a master chess player are clouding his and surrogates’ judgement.

NBTrust Matsilele is former journalist and political consultant. He has worked for Forbes Africa, CNBC Africa and African Democratic Institute among others. He is currently completing his PhD with the University of Johannesburg. These are his views and he can be contacted at:






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