Jacob Zuma will soon, perhaps as early as Sunday, become the fourth former South African president since the attainment of non-racial democracy in 1994.
On Friday, planned outings in Cape Town by the top six leaders of the ruling African National Congress were cancelled, along with other events, as newly-elected party president Cyril Ramaphosa called his team back to Johannesburg ahead of a ‘showdown’ meeting with Zuma.
The details of that meeting were not given, but it is believed to have been scheduled for Saturday with Ramaphosa due to be back in Cape Town by Sunday to mark the 28th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison.
Ramaphosa was due to have his “take-it-or-leave it” meeting with Zuma alone.
Some stark options were to be placed on the table.
An immediate Zuma resignation, or within a few days at most, was confidently expected to be the result, ANC insiders said.
In a highly fluid and increasingly volatile situation, it appeared Zuma’s days in power were down to a handful.
Fuelling speculation and anxiety about what would happen next, the ANC leadership was all but mum with regard to the one-on-one talks between the pair, which some claimed Zuma initiated but which the Sunday Nation learnt was Ramaphosa’s idea.
Following an uncompromising meeting with the ANC’s top six on Sunday night, at which an unrepentant Zuma refused Ramaphosa’s demand that he resign, the writing was on the cards for the president.
But instead of a mid-week session of the ANC’s 80-strong national executive committee at which Zuma’s fate was to be sealed, the party was thrown into disarray when Ramaphosa took the reins and sat down with Zuma to sort out an exit strategy with the least amount of fuss, damage and delay.
Though cornered, Zuma has not been easy to placate as he has pondered post-term problems, mainly legal in nature.
Senior ANC sources say Ramaphosa, who was instrumental in negotiating with the apartheid government to achieve South Africa’s human rights-based constitutional settlement, was comfortable with how talks with Zuma were going.
That was on Thursday when, unexpectedly, he “dropped in to say hello” to the ANC’s parliamentary caucus.
There was much more to Ramaphosa’s chat with the caucus than that as this is a key grouping in the saga of Zuma’s exit.
Without a willing resignation, the caucus would either have to back an opposition vote of no confidence in Zuma — something ANC is keen to avoid — or to impeach him.
That last option — which the ANC is referring to as a transition — has been dubbed the nuclear option.
The reason for this tag is that it means Zuma is kicked out of office unceremoniously and without the privileges due to a former president.
Such privileges include a full annual pay of $250,000 for the rest of his life, medical and protection services, among many other perks, plus possibly some legal aid should he face charges related to his time as deputy president under Thabo Mbeki or his two terms as president.
Ramaphosa’s upbeat assessment that he had the Zuma situation in hand appeared to be supported by how far things had moved in the days since last Sunday’s intransigence from the president.
The new ANC leader’s discussion with the parliamentary caucus of the impeachment article in the South Africa’s constitution makes it clear that he is prepared to use big guns if necessary.
Zuma had been holding over Ramaphosa’s head the unhappy prospect — for ANC and for Ramaphosa as its leader — of a mass defection of arch tribalists who feel closer to Zuma as a fellow Zulu than they do to the party.
That Zuma had been playing the tribal card was attested to by his former allies in the South African Communist Party who accused him of stirring up ethnic mobilisation.
Zuma denied it, but only a day before he had been summoned by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini in Zuma’s heartland of KwaZulu-Natal.
According to sources, Zuma was given a dressing down and told to stop using his “Zulu-ness” to remain in power.
He was told he was endangering the country and that he should listen to Ramaphosa and resign.
With the nuclear option of impeachment having been openly broached by Ramaphosa in a fashion certain to get back to Zuma, it seemed as the weekend began that the president was no longer negotiating to stay on in power but rather around what he could expect once he resigned.
His main issues were to do with his probable court costs as he faces the imminent re-imposition of 783 counts on 18 charges of fraud, money-laundering and corruption relating to a 1999 multibillion dollar arms deal.
And there are numerous possible charges that look likely to arise from a court-ordered inquiry into the “state capture” and influence-peddling that have developed under Zuma’s rule.
Ramaphosa refused to offer Zuma a pre-resignation surety against prosecution.
Instead, Zuma was told his struggle credentials would count in his favour – but he would still have to be tried.
Indications are that if Zuma resigns and is later sent to jail, he will likely serve only a small part of the term before being pardoned.
Zuma is also believed to want extended protection for his large family.
With time pressing on Zuma and Ramaphosa, it was expected he would take what he could get and quit.
However, Zuma was still fighting at week’s end, with one of his four wives going to social media to say people “should not fight with someone who isn’t fighting”, adding that things were about to “get hectic”.
And there is evidence that Ramaphosa’s promise to clean up corruption is being fulfilled.
In a single day, a former regional police chief, his wife and a businessman with whom the two were doing dubious deals pleaded guilty to corruption, while a recent former acting national police commissioner and the parties with whom he is reported to have had corruption relations were arraigned and released on bail.
"The tide has turned and we are seeing the captured state house of cards come crashing down. It is happening fast,” a senior ANC member said.
“Cyril is serious. He wants Jacob gone as fast and as cleanly as possible. Jacob knows it. He is out of time and out of options.
"He will resign or, if he is stupid about this, he will be forced out with nothing. The days of Jacob Zuma are over.”
This ANC member preferred anonymity as caucus meetings are not for public repetition and because there was a desire not to aggravate the already deep fractures in Africa’s oldest liberation movement, which Zuma has brought to the brink of disintegration.