Being uninformed is so last season
22 October 2014 06:32 (South Africa)
South Africa

The method and madness in choosing all the President’s men

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
Ranjeni-all-the-presidents-men.jpg

The news and analysis sections of the Sunday papers revealed two things: National Prosecuting Authority head Mxolisi Nxasana is in serious trouble and President Jacob Zuma did not win many new fans with the appointment of his new, XXXL-sized Cabinet. Nxasana, who seems to have attempted to walk the straight and narrow since his appointment, looks destined to be another of Zuma’s ill-fated high-profile appointments. Apart from the appointment of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, Zuma has not made any inspired choices in his executive or at public institutions. That trend is set to continue as long as the process of making appointments remains a strange blend of political payback, placation of camps within the ANC and whispers in the president’s ear. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The new Minister of State Security David Mahlobo seems rather excited about his new job. In an interview with City Press, the man previously referred to as a “Super HOD (Head of Department)” by his colleagues in Mpumalanga, was raring to take on a new responsibility, even though he said people were asking “what a scientist is doing in intelligence”.

I have a job to do and all I know is that my responsibility is to analyse information and ensure everybody is safe,” Mahlobo said.

Um, well, Minister, that is in fact really not your job. There is a whole crew of people, whom you have probably never heard of before, who report to the intelligence headquarters, Musanda, outside Pretoria, and it is their job to analyse information to ensure everybody is safe. Political responsibility, particularly when it comes to the intelligence services, should definitely not include “analysing information”.

The writers of the Constitution in fact phrased the section on Intelligence differently from other Security Services. Chapter 11 of the Constitution stipulates under “political responsibility” that “a member of the Cabinet” must be responsible for the Department of Defence and for the Police.

However, in the section on Intelligence, while setting out that heads should be appointed for each intelligence service, it does not have a clause on “political responsibility”. Instead it states: “The President… must either assume political responsibility for the control and direction of any of those services, or designate a member of the Cabinet to assume that responsibility.” The first Cabinet under Nelson Mandela therefore did not have a Minister of Intelligence and it was subordinated to the Minister of Justice. Later the ANC’s former intelligence chief Joe Nhlanhla became Deputy Minister of Justice and was charged with responsibility for intelligence affairs.

The reason the drafters of the Constitution vested the political responsibility for Intelligence with the president is because sensitive information provides the holder with inordinate power – over the Republic, over the president and over the Cabinet. In 1999, Intelligence became a full Ministry under President Thabo Mbeki, but it soon became embroiled in factional battles in the ANC, and has continued to do so up to now. The ministry, renamed State Security in 2009, has progressively given itself greater political powers through legislative amendments. The misalignment with the Constitution, however, remains.

Minister Mahlobo therefore has to learn a lot about his portfolio, including what his job is. This is one problem with how political appointments are made – people are roped in without prior knowledge of highly sensitive portfolios and thrown in the deep end. It also causes resentment and battles with people already there and who have extensive knowledge of the field and the functioning of the departments. This was part of the reason Mahlobo’s predecessor Siyabonga Cwele fared so badly.

It is not known what criteria President Jacob Zuma used to choose either Cwele or Mahlobo, and what mandates he gave them. It has become customary for South Africa’s presidents not to elucidate on appointments, particularly when they fall in the ambit of “presidential prerogative”. So the nation never has the benefit of being taken into confidence about why candidates are chosen for particular posts.

This was also the case when the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Mxolisi Nxasana was appointed in August last year. Nxasana is now floundering in the deep end, having made powerful political enemies during his short stay at the NPA. His past transgressions, including a murder charge, on which he was acquitted, is now preventing him from receiving security clearance. The position of NPA head had been vacant since 2011 and Nxasana’s appointment came as a surprise. Media reports now suggest that the Zuma’s legal advisor Michael Hulley recommended Nxasana for the position, and his appointment was pushed through without the requisite security checks being done.

This is the problem with the secretive manner presidential appointments are made, where there is more effort in making sure names do not leak to the media rather than doing the necessary homework and getting appointments right. If the story about Hulley is true, it would not be the first time the president is talked into appointing someone he does not know into a key position and then lives to regret it.

In the past, the presidency has also been embarrassed by bad advice on appointments that bombed spectacularly, such as that of Menzi Simelane as a previous National Director of Public Prosecutions. Zuma also received bad advice when he tried to extend the term of former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo when his tenure at the Constitutional Court was lapsing.

After all these bad experiences, the president should have been under enormous pressure to get his new Cabinet right. But “right” is a relative term, as the main consideration for Zuma was to tick all the boxes of interest groups in the ANC rather than getting top performers and hard workers with the right knowledge into the key positions.

When Zuma addressed the nation last Sunday night to announce his Cabinet, he was obviously exhausted and drawn. It had been a long two days with his inauguration on Saturday, which means he had to play host to a number of African heads of state and foreign dignitaries, and then the complex process of deciding the positioning of the 72 members of the national executive.

The Sunday Times reported that presidency staff started calling ministers and deputy ministers from 4:30am on Sunday to summon them to presidential residence. They then had to wait in turn to meet with Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe where they were informed of their deployments – some only late that afternoon.

So when Zuma faced the nation that evening, he simply went through the motions of announcing the appointments – rather sternly too – before bustling off. He did, however, briefly outline the new ministerial portfolios and what they would be responsible for.

It would be fascinating to discover how exactly the process of compiling the Cabinet took place and what Zuma and Mantashe took into account when allocating people into positions. Zuma obviously went to great lengths to reward the South African Communist Party in particular, and Cosatu, as well as the women’s and youth leagues. He also had to make sure there was a regional and ethnic spread.

The one portfolio he could not mess too much with was Finance. With Pravin Gordhan hinting months before that he did not want to stay in the portfolio, Zuma could go ahead and shift him without causing shock waves, particularly as Nhlanhla Nene was such a safe choice as a replacement. But Zuma had a free hand with all other portfolios, as long as he satisfied all constituencies in the ANC.

The 2014 national executive is the first in post democracy South Africa not to incorporate a member of an opposition party. Zuma dispensed with Freedom Front leader Pieter Mulder who previously served as Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and also got rid of former New National Party leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who merged his party into the ANC. Even with the huge extension to his executive, Zuma obviously needed every available post to accommodate the growing political elite in the ANC.

Zuma also has the prerogative to appoint two people who are not Members of Parliament into the Cabinet. The only person he did incorporate from outside Parliament was former Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane who, because of the uncertainty over the premiership of her province, ended up being neither an MP nor a member of the Gauteng provincial legislature. Zuma made a political statement by appointing her into the national Cabinet and omitting Paul Mashatile, the Gauteng ANC chairman and last remaining figurehead of a challenge to his leadership.

With government desperate to get business and society behind the National Development Plan, it could have sent a powerful signal had he roped in someone with the requisite skill from outside the ANC leadership to head a portfolio which government was struggling with – perhaps Energy, Information Technology or Economic Development. Instead Zuma added more dead wood to an already lumbering group, some now shifted to positions they admit they know nothing about.

Could there be a better way of doing public appointments? Perhaps if “presidential prerogative” did not have to be a cloak and dagger business, there could be. As things stand, if someone is a popular candidate for a position, they have almost zero chance of getting it. Nobody is allowed to campaign for positions. The public has no role in the appointment of people who manage their lives.

If the current system was working for the country and the right people were getting into the right jobs with the right outcomes, there would be no need to consider alternatives. As things stand however, government performance – and by extension the country’s performance – is not where it should be, with dire consequences. And too many public figures are faced with derision and disgrace because they do not know how to do their jobs or are the wrong people for them.

A suggestion box for the president perhaps? If only Mr President would extend his gaze beyond his circle of acolytes. DM

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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