It has been a week of delays and postponements. We have had media briefings on the steps of Parliament. Engagements were scheduled, then cancelled. What could have been was not to be. No "State of the Nation Address". No debate of that address. No meetings – special or otherwise – of the governing party’s newly elected leadership structure. And then a marathon session of that group at a rather ersatz location in the allegorically suggestive suburb of Irene, near Centurion.
But this was not Roman comedy or tragedy. This was political machination with a few unoiled gears grinding noisily as the operators of the machine insisted that all was well. All was clearly not well, and not only in Hamlet’s state of Denmark. Having avoided the use of the word, finally, on 13 February 2018, the secretary-general and the deputy secretary-general of the ANC had to say it: resign. President Jacob Zuma was asked to resign.
After months of insisting they would not ask him to resign – it may have been years, or perhaps it just felt like it – the party’s top officials finally plucked up the courage to announce their decision. However, as these moments of political spectacle go, it was more whimper than bang.
He was asked to resign but no deadline for a response was given. The ANC expected his response by 14 February. Is the date meant to be significant? It is Valentine’s Day, a terrifically tasteless festival of the commodification of love and desire, where the kind of tacky tokens of the simulation of lust are exchanged by people who either pretend or believe their gestures are truly meaningful. Almost like the resignation without a deadline: one wonders what its true effect is meant to be.
Is Zuma’s resignation meant to be a Valentine to the citizens of South Africa? After all, if he announces his resignation then it would be more "Dear John" than "Be my Valentine". In some senses, of course, the president of the Republic of South Africa has long been known for his ability to charm voters, to sweep people into his magnetic aura. He is at his best addressing large rallies, and often breaks into song. Zuma is almost like a version of the medieval poet-lover. But of late his serenades have fallen on increasingly hardened ears, not only in the republic but now, it seems, also inside his own party.
And in that there is something tragic about the downfall of Jacob Zuma inside the ANC. That the news of his recall had to be delivered by long-standing defenders of his person, Ace Magashule and Jessie Duarte, could not be overlooked. Both looked overwrought: theirs is not an enviable position. The unity that the party has been preaching since its December elective conference outcomes is being tested. People who opposed Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign for the party’s presidency now have to deliver the mandate they had fought against.
Of course, the longer the impasse between Zuma and the leadership of the ANC goes on, the greater the wound the party will be inflicting on itself. It is just over a year until the next general elections, and the party has much to repair in its relationship with the electorate. While it won in the majority of the municipalities across the country in August 2016, it suffered some telling and potentially ominous losses in three large metropolitan centres.
It must be remembered that South Africa is a rapidly urbanising country, and the party that wants to govern in the future must increasingly appeal to urbanites, those dwellers of cities and towns whose political gaze is decidedly self-interested, but also demanding, and entitled. If the party could weather one general election defying the views millions of South Africans have professed in public about Zuma, it dare not try that again. The symbolic cuts of August 2016 have not yet healed over.
So, the ANC once more leaves South Africans waiting, having announced that it requires a resignation from Zuma, and having signalled that it is not keen to institute either a motion of no confidence (or vote in favour of such a motion if started by another party) or a motion of impeachment. Those could be more like the wounds the Caesars of Rome were reputed to inflict on themselves in warm baths.
And as we await the response from the man who has been instructed to resign from his position as head of state by the party who deployed him there, we may recall the words of Macbeth, which Zuma himself quoted at a rally once:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time
Time marches only inexorably forward. And the political survivor of note, Jacob Zuma, may well be running out of the precious stuff that has awed so many observers over the long span of his spectacular political career. Contrary to the words crooned by Mick Jagger, time is not on his side. The people of South Africa are restless, they want resolution, one way or the other. As we enter the fifth act of the post-millennial morality play of his presidency, perhaps even Zuma must realise that he is caught in the web of tragedy, one he was not fated for, but a political tragedy of his own making.
Unfortunately for the ANC, its position on Zuma over years has resulted in his tragedy possibly becoming the party's. Its actions over the last few weeks, and over the next few months, may be fuelled by the desire to undo that link. But for the citizens of South Africa, the tragedy of the ANC risks becoming the tragedy of the nation. It is not about one man; it is not even about the people who surround that man; it is about all of us. The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the one, or even the few.