The number of screw-ups by the president’s closest working team is growing with annoying consistency these days. Perhaps people at the highest office in the country should be worried. Perhaps we all should.
During election campaigns, candidates routinely come out with the most outlandish embellishments of their credentials. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run for the Democratic nomination is perhaps the best example: if she travelled with her daughter as part of delegation to the former war zone (Bosnia), in her eyes that made her fit to be a war-time commander. If she, in her day job as US Senator, voted for a finance bill that was envisaged and put together by someone else, that made her competent to run the economy. But, after many months of telling tall stories, one thing was becoming painfully obvious: her campaign was in complete disarray; her team’s infighting was playing out in the open; insane amounts of money were being spent on states she had no chance of winning and, such was the false sense of her inevitable victory, that there was no strategy whatsoever for the second and third phases of the primaries.
Embellishments aside, the reigning chaos more than anything else convinced even her own people of Clinton’s unsuitability for the most powerful job on the planet: she couldn’t even organise and control her own campaign, let alone run the entire country! All the Democrats had to do was look at her opponent’s, Barrack Obama’s, campaign, to understand who was better qualified for the job.
When presidents come into office, nobody expects them to run around the presidency delivering the mail. But we do expect them to hire competent people that will do all the running for them, advise when advice is needed, nudge when they need nudging or take a political bullet for them, should it be necessary.
The first months of 2010 have proven that President Jacob Zuma has failed very badly in this task.
Governing is hard. We all know that. In a country as troubled as South Africa is, it would take a special kind of operator who possesses special kinds of skills to make it a success. President Zuma, unfortunately, has a skill-set mostly reserved for winning power. With his party, and by osmosis, this country, in shambles, he needs an army of sharp, able people to deliver on his many campaign promises as well as deal with all the bad stuff that is thrown their way daily. No such luck with Zuma’s Presidency.
There are a few things to consider when creating a great, competent team. You need to pick people you trust and trust the people you pick. They need to be an extension of yourself; their political futures need to be tied to yours. You want to be able to give them your children for a month and not worry. They need to be people who fought with you in the trenches, people with whom you’ve vanquished enemies and people who you know have a stiff backbone. People who would die for you.
Then there’s a layer of party loyalists. These are different to your people. These are people high up in the party, with their own ambitions and agendas. Not unlike those political officers on Soviet submarines, they’re also there to help you implement the party policy and make sure you don’t suddenly develop a taste making your horse a senator. And that’s fine, because as much as you need protection from the world, the world needs protection from you.
And then there are the people you have in the presidency for their skills and experience. You may not like them particularly much, you may disagree with them from time to time, but they are there to point out the pitfalls, the mistakes other people have made. They are there fulfilling the institutional memory function of the highest office in the land. And they are there to do the job.
Most democracies will have in the highest office in the land a motley collection of these types of people. But getting the mix right is fiendishly difficult. You need to trust the top one or two, so you pick your people first and foremost. But after that, the easiest sacrifice to make is that of trading competence for politics. And we’re getting worried that that is exactly what is happening with Zuma’s presidency.
So far, 2010 has sucked for President Zuma. The last good news he heard, by our reckoning, was those polls back in January showing he had solid backing from most of the country. Since then it’s been a litany of political missteps. From the first reports of “the child” to his proud handing over of a gift of a chess set “in the African idiom” to Queen Elizabeth II, only to see she already had one, presented to her by one N. R. Mandela. Then there’s the badly delivered State of the Nation address (did someone give him the pages in the wrong order?), and, the crème de la crème, Jessie Duarte’s resignation/non-resignation from the presidency itself. And, of course, the plump and juicy cherry on top was his failure to declare his financial interests.
Virtually all of these were stupid, avoidable mistakes. It’s the knuckle-head stuff that should stay off the president’s desk. Giving the Queen of England the wrong present is careless. Mucking up a State of the Nation speech is unforgivable. Okay, the love child is the kind of thing that was probably bound to happen to Zuma. But no matter how much reverence you may have for culture and your privacy, to keep your staff in the dark about this kid that’s out there shows just how little trust you have in them. Apart from being plain political suicide, where even the Youth League had to temper its support, much larger questions abound: How the hell is a president supposed to run a country when there’s no trust between him and his immediate team?
The Duarte issue simply should never have happened. If you’re the boss, you’re the boss. You’re where the buck stops, and if the people in your office aren’t getting on, crack some heads together or fire someone. You’ll live out the bad headlines for a day or two, and things will get back to normal. You will, when the dust has settled, see columnists analyse what happened and praise your decisive leadership. But instead, there’s this letter floating around out there, clearly leaked by someone within your inner core, about someone else inside your inner core. It really shows Zuma’s political capital gauge is deep in the red. And faced with having to preserve the political fuel and not attract more enemies, Zuma’s just going to let it all slide until, inevitably, there is a some massive blow-up that will embarrass him and possibly all of us.
As for the declaration of his assets, between conspiracy and stupidity, we think it’s the latter. It really just seems as though they simply forgot, and the reason is both simple and omnipresent: incompetence. For them to say that there was a “difference of opinion” is the legal and political equivalent of saying “the dog ate our homework”. Oh for goodness sake, they simply forgot! History has taught us that if Zuma’s lawyers ever disagree on anything, there’s no way it gets solved without first going to the Constitutional Court.
Zuma has a seriously long list of problems on his hands at the moment. We all know the ANC is about as divided a church can be and still call itself “Catholic” in the most literal sense. But that is to be expected of such a motley group.
However, knowing that the president’s executive team is incompetent, petty and just plain useless … That is something that should chill Jacob Zuma’s and our collective blood. It does chill ours. How about you Mr President?
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo: Supporters of Jacob Zuma chant slogans during the second day of the ANC conference in Polokwane, December 17, 2007. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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