He may appear tired, never a good sign for a leader of a turbulent country in stormy times. But Jacob Zuma is one politician you should never count out too soon. Just ask Thabo Mbeki.
Governing is so often the rock upon which many a successful politician founders. There are the massive campaigns, the disasters and the come-backs, and then, after many a pitfall and promise, the swearing in, inauguration and the move into a swishy office.
And then the problems come. Harold Macmillan’s “events” started to crop up and things became difficult. And that’s because governing is always difficult. And President Jacob Zuma is beginning to find that out just how hugely difficult it is, especially as he really is much weaker today than he was just last month.
While the tone of his prepared State of the Nation speech was upbeat last week, it showed signs of a wordsmith being allowed to drop in some sound bites for later use; the “year of action” being the main example. But the man himself was tired. Everything that has been plaguing him for weeks was finally beginning to show. And the reaction to his speech shows that perhaps some of his supporters are beginning to tire of him too.
It’s starting with the usual suspects, the unions. A possible movement away from the leader of the day, and to someone else in the unknown future. The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa used the word “disappointed” in its reaction. It wanted a clarion call that would mark a wholesale change to SA’s “economic trajectory”. Presumably, Numsa wanted Zuma to sound the marching orders towards socialism. Surely, it didn’t really expect that to happen. But what it could be doing is using its “disappointment” to get things moving, officially.
However, it was Cosatu’s reaction, and in particular Zwelinzima Vavi, which proved to be one of the more emphatic on this. Parts of Vavi’s interviews after the speech sounded as if he was an opposition leader. His list of disappointments was pretty lengthy – not enough job creation, lack of change to inflation targeting, that sort of thing. For many years, Vavi was one of Thabo Mbeki’s harshest critics, one of the few people who had the courage to stand up to him on Aids and Zimbabwe; he was also seen as one of the people who engineered Mbeki’s fall. And he was also one of the early adopters of Zuma, once he worked out that he was going to take over. Which makes his comment that “no decision has yet been taken” on whether to back Zuma for a second term very telling indeed. From his side, as always, Vavi was benefitting from being outside the tent. And he likes to set it on fire every now and then.
Yet, at the same time, the SACP was more moderate, “broadly welcoming” the speech. It’s difficult to be too harsh, if you’re in government.
But Zuma’s problem is really this: His alliance is the broadest of broad political churches. It’s what history teachers may call an “Unholy Alliance” because it was only gathered together to achieve one aim, taking over power. Outside that simple goal, the partners didn’t really agree on much. And so now Zuma has to forge a path that keeps everyone happy. Not a task for just anyone, and especially not easy for a leader with ever-diminishing political capital.
What Zuma probably is going to be advised to do is find an issue that he will get broad agreement on.
Now, that is where the danger lurks for the rest of society. The issue Zuma could push to please the entire alliance will almost certainly be something that will please the left side of his church. Like nationalising the mines or the Reserve Bank. Both of them very, very bad ideas for the country. These are big, complex issues: changing the Reserve Bank’s ownership will certainly not add to human happiness. But it’ll sound good and would please most of the ANC. Nationalising the mines would keep the Youth League happy, it would probably keep the plunderers happy and it would be a good populist stuff to please some masses.
In politics for every action there’s a reaction, but not necessarily equal nor opposite. Crucially, in both cases white capitalists would oppose it, which would strengthen Zuma’s political hand and gather his church more solidly behind him. Taken to the extreme, Robert Mugabe had no cards left in the mid-1990’s, and so he turned on the whites and made land the big issue. We don’t see that happening in South Africa, but you get our drift.
And in politics, having a big, outside enemy always helps. That simple fact puts the reaction of people such as Helen Zille in an important place. By opposing anything that Zuma may do or say will only make his position stronger. Should the DA refrain from attacking him, he will find he has much more to worry about from the enemy within.
A weak leader, like the weaker kings of English history, can be good or bad. If they feel it, the weak leaders tend to lash out, paranoia can take over. (Hey, hasn’t that happened here before? Remember Thabo Mbeki? – Ed) They can end up destroying the very people that brought them to power. They turn on everyone, and end up damaging themselves, the people and the country. They have to pay off so many people that they cannot actually do anything, and as a result the country rots.
But there is another way this can all turn out. The Magna Carta, that basis of human rights, was signed by a very weak king. King John was so deeply in hock to the barons that he basically gave away the rights of kings – their ability to just chuck people in jail, to steal wives, the usual things that came with being born to the right parents. A weak president can weaken the presidency. It can give more space to other people in government, in the Chapter Nine institutions to do things. It allows more people to play off against each other and, so long as the separation of powers is respected, can end with stronger and more empowered people. Think of a public protector who feels she can rule against a president, or MPs who can ask nasty questions of ministers, because the president’s protection isn’t what it was under Essop Pahad.
And yet, it is way too early to write off Zuma as a political force. So many of us in the media have made that mistake so many times before. He’s clever, politically adept and has plenty of people around him who are inseparably tied to him. He still has plenty to play with. Expect him to study Mbeki’s mistake and do exactly the opposite: go into the communities, talk to the people directly, be seen, be active and energetic. And he’ll probably find that a huge chunk of them will be happy to forgive him. Especially in the year of the World Cup.
Still, the last 20 days have certainly knocked the shine off him. Like King John, he’s become human.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
King Tutankhamun's ceremonial dagger is forged from meteorites.