Will Zuma serve a second term?

Will he serve out his first term?

Who dares give an answer to these questions? Oh, alight I will.

I have burned myself before by being a little too sure and a lot too wrong about what the future holds.

Analysts like myself are constantly encouraged to take a firm view of what is going to be going down down the road. The client – usually a fund manager – is the person who has to take a bet on a number of future trends and it usually helps him or her to hear strongly stated predictions with the various arguments that support them from various analysts. If these analysts disagree, all the better. Hence outlier positions are often useful.

“So what percentage likelihood would you place on Zuma becoming president?” I would be constantly asked in the lead-up to Polokwane.

“Oh, not more than 45% … the Mbeki machine is kicking in …. the Zuma character issues are overwhelming …. the left of the Alliance is betting against history …. the ANC prefers educated leaders …”, blah, blah fish paste; if I could only go back there and shut myself up. But I have to believe (in an existential sense) that it added some value.

I am sure anyone whose job it is to understand the workings of a particular societal process or phenomena is likely to make mistakes when pushed to give specific predictions of outcomes. For political analysts I suspect the dangers are greater than for most. The errors seem to congregate in two broad categories:

Confusing how it feels with how it is:

There seems to be a strong human instinct for story telling and narrative that causes us to think of the ordering and outcome of events as being rooted in the origin of a story. The error is that we tend not to hold randomness as our base case (as I think we should – or rather my experience has taught me I should.)

Confusing the subjective with the objective:

This is about the power of what appears to be the consensus. We tend to believe the views that we collect and hear from others, especially when they are reflected back at us by everyone we speak to and by the media consensus. The future is, objectively, full of surprises. Don’t be confused by certainty and repetition – he said sternly to himself.

With those qualifiers, my ‘professional expectation’ is that Zuma will survive the first term of his presidency.

Both the ANC itself and the interplay of the Alliance partners are a real mess, but it took a Polokwane to throw out Mbeki and anyone involved in that process is probably still counting the costs of that exercise. In other words, doing it again, and this time without the kind of unanimity that surrounded the Mbeki ousting, would have to be overwhelmingly urgent as the costs in division and discontinuity would be overwhelming. And I don’t think there is any consensus in the alliance of forces (clearly no longer an alliance) that backed Zuma against Mbeki that there is the requisite urgency around the person and performance of the President.

I am less confident (although strictly speaking I am not confident – in the sense of being certain – about any ordering or outcome of events in the future) about the second term. Up until a few weeks ago I would have said: it is always easier to allow the sitting president to stay in his job when the big contending forces are still involved in the war of position; that no side’s victory is yet in sight. But even if the big power plays are not yet completed by the ANC centenary conference in 2012 there might be a consensus that a safer pair of hands (Motlanthe?) may be in order.

Zuma’s term as president is, unfortunately, proving itself to be that bad.