South Africa: Is President Zuma’s “Rope-A-Dope” Strategy Working?

Some political commentators have compared President Zuma’s strategy to sustain his presidency to that of professional boxing great Muhammed Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique — namely, to let his opponents expend their energy in fruitless sallies that will allow him to deliver a powerful counterpunch later in the match. Events during February offer some support for this view as those seeking Zuma’s removal continued to flail without being able to deliver a knock-out blow.

  • The president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on February 9 was a catalyst for opposition protests in parliament and widespread criticism of its content, but there is no evidence that it significantly altered his standing within the African National Congress (ANC).
  • Long-standing ANC critics of Zuma reissued calls for his resignation without evident effect. On February 8, in a speech timed for the president’s SONA appearance the next day, Sopho Pityana, the head of civil organization Save South Africa, again called for Zuma’s resignation. And, on February 19, former ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa penned an editorial calling for Zuma to resign, highlighting the ANC’s dismal electoral prospects going forward.

Predata’s tracking of digital attention to the ongoing debate about Zuma’s future and potential Zuma successors (see above) suggests that Zuma’s “rope-a-dope” is at best having limited success. On the positive side of the ledger from Zuma’s perspective, the anti-Zuma camp appears to have lost some momentum post-November when the president survived challenges to his continued leadership in Parliament and the ANC’s National Executive Committee.

On the other side of the ledger, attention to the anti-Zuma camp has rebounded since the beginning of the year and continues to overshadow that for Zuma’s supporters. Gaffes, such as the late February statement by the pro-Zuma President of the ANC Youth League that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is a “spy” for monopoly capital, didn’t help Zuma’s cause. But perhaps the most negative development for Zuma has been the limited traction that Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, the President’s former wife and his preferred replacement as ANC president, has gotten since she began profiling her candidacy to succeed him. President Zuma may, in effect, have no powerful counterpunch to deliver. This suggests that the skirmishing between the pro- and anti-Zuma camps will continue up to the selection of the new ANC president in December. ⏪