Politics

Chuck Norris, meet Jacob Zuma

By Stephen Grootes 25 October 2011

We've said it before, and we'll probably say it again. Jacob Zuma is the MacDaddy of South African politics. And one of the joys of being president, is that you are, in fact, The President. So when you move, it's as if, to use one of the ANC's favourite metaphors, an elephant has moved. If someone’s in the way, they get trampled. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Zuma has now moved. And in doing so, he has dramatically changed the deck. He’s restacked it. The deck as we knew it is now an ex-deck. But the real story is not so much the reshuffle. It’s the limited extent of it, and the seniority and independence of the judges that Zuma has appointed to investigate the little matters of the Arms Deal and the National Police Commissioner.

Let’s start with the basics. In a sentence, Zuma has sacked two ministers, shuffled another couple around, suspended Bheki Cele and appointed an inquiry into his conduct, and also found three judges to investigate the Arms Deal. That may sound simple, but it’s not. There is elegant political choreography that needs to play out. The Constitution says the president can simply sack a Cabinet minister. So that’s the easy part. The hard part is that he has to commission a board of inquiry if he wants to sack the Police Commissioner (anyone remember Vusi Pikoli and the Ginwala Commission?). And in this case, both former Public Works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and National Police Commissioner (now in name only) Bheki Cele were involved in the same headquarters lease deal. So to act against one meant acting against the other. You can imagine, Cele has to be told, judges have to be found and convinced to take the inquiry on, and all of this has to happen in secret. In an environment when some of the people concerned, particularly Cele, have every interest in not keep their mouths shut. But Zuma’s pulled it off.

Now, on to the decisions made. The headline to all of this is the reshuffle. It’s really a mini-reshuffle. The only real decision was that of sacking Sicelo Shiceka, and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde. In both cases, there had been intense pressure from within the Alliance. Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi seemed to almost froth at the mouth every time Shiceka’s name came up. And if you read the Public Protector’s report into his conduct, you’ll understand why. If you haven’t read it yet, you must. It’s a real indication that all is not well on Planet Shiceka. Let’s just say he took the “Traditional Affairs” part of his portfolio to heart. So no surprises there then.

Richard Baloyi is the new minister, and hopefully he’ll take the “Cooperative Governance” part more seriously; he moves over from Public Service and Administration. While neither of these two jobs is a picnic, Cooperative Governance is probably the worse of the two. It’s a mess. Overnight Baloyi is now responsible for every single failing municipality in the country. Which seems pretty much like all of them. He also has to take over a department that hasn’t had a leader for months on end, so who knows what nonsense has been going on while the cat has been away. And all this at a time when fixing local government is supposed to be one of the ruling party’s priorities. Pass the man the Panado.

Roy Padayachee takes over from him at Public Service and Administration. The communications fraternity is going to miss him big time. He was really getting going at Communications. Hopefully his experience with dealing with the SABC will have prepped him nicely for dealing with unions. His main aim in life in his new job will be to stay out of the headlines. If that minister is in the news, it usually means a public service strike is in the offing. And at the same time, he will have the problem that when it really gets right down to it, he’s not the person who really does any face to face negotiating with unions. We all know these things are usually sorted out through Alliance structures. So you can end up being just a spectator, but publicly carrying the can anyway.

The new Communications minister is Dina Pule. She’s been awfully quiet as a deputy minister at Performance Monitoring and Evaluation. It seems unlikely that that’s because her former boss Collins Chabane refused to let her have some limelight. But she may find the SABC will put her on the front pages whether she wants to be there or not. Her first problem, sorry, “challenge”, will be finding a new SABC group chief executive, and that is no fun. It’s a hugely politicised choice that brings the worst parts of the relationship between the ANC and its Alliance “partners” into play. Good luck to her, she will need it.

You would think that after Mahlangu-Nkabinde, what Public Works really needs is a good manager. Someone to keep tabs on its officials. The department is almost set up to failp; its job is to look after government resources. As a result, you only hear about it when it fails. Which is often. But instead of a good manager, it’s getting a unionist. And Thulas Nxesi isn’t just from any union. He’s the former general secretary of our good friends in education, the SA Democratic Teachers Union. Ja, we don’t see the logic here either. That’s not a dip at Nxesi, he’s always been quite accessible, especially considering how Sadtu is run these days. But he doesn’t seem to come with important managerial experience.

Zuma has limited the extent of this reshuffle by bringing in relative youngsters to serve as deputy ministers. Almost all are uncontroversial. It would seem the point here is that he is now able to say, “Look, I’ve acted where I had to act”, but no one can accuse him of being politically motivated. In other words, it’s really hard to look at these changes, and say he was acting with just Mangaung in mind. But no doubt someone will try anyway. Perhaps during a march later this week…

Now, let’s move on to perhaps the more interesting aspects of his announcement. It’s really interesting that Zuma has picked such senior judges to investigate the Arms Deal. We don’t know the terms of reference yet; we’re told they’re coming soon. But if you had to pick a panel of three independently minded judges, you’d probably come up with Judges Willie Seriti (former North Gauteng, now Supreme Court of Appeal), Willem van der Merwe (yes, him. You don’t remember? Zuma does, he once testified in his court about unprotected sex) and Francis Legodi. All three have strong ties to the North Gauteng High Court. Seriti chairs the commission on executive pay, and has grown used to setting the president’s pay over the years. Van der Merwe has been playing a key role in modernising the North Gauteng High Court (take a trip there, compare it with the situation in South Gauteng, you will be amazed). In other words, Zuma seems to have picked a panel that is completely and utterly neutral.

Why? Perhaps we need to start taking him at his word when he says he really wants to get to the bottom of the Arms Deal. Certainly, one would think that these three judges are the right people to get some closure on the damn thing once and for all. The other way of looking at, of course, is to dispel claims that he’s acting only to nobble his political opponents. In other words, by picking these three judges, he’s able to say he opened the commission in the interests of the country, and what happened after that was not his fault. But it’s the terms of reference that will be crucial here. By the way, this commission is going to run for two years. That means it may only report back well after Mangaung. So perhaps the Arms Deal Inquiry will be depoliticised after all.

And now to Bheki Cele. Well, we all expected something to happen here, didn’t we? But in a departure from the “act now, pay later” school of political thinking that we’ve become so accustomed to, Zuma seems to be following the law to the letter. No doubt there will be some who will say he could have found a way to just sack Cele. But that should be dispelled by the choice of former Constitutional Court Judge Yvonne Mokgoro to chair the inquiry into Cele’s conduct. Cele is suspended while that inquiry investigates  (yes, he’s getting paid while he’s on suspension. It really is good of you to be so concerned for him) his role in the police building leases. Mokgoro is as independent minded as you get. She has nothing to lose if she runs into trouble. And she will know immediately if someone is trying to hoodwink her.

So this choice buys Zuma legitimacy. There’s no doubt her findings will be very similar to those of the Public Protector – that Cele behaved wrongly, and possibly criminally. But this also buys Zuma time to find an easy way out. Cele will go, there’s no question of that, it’s about how he goes, and to where. If you’re planning on going to Canada, don’t be rude to him just yet. You may still need him to bail you out.

All in all, Zuma has done many things with this series of moves. Firstly, he’s just got rid of a lot of the rubble that was in his in-tray. The headaches of Shiceka and Mahlangu-Nkabinde are gone. The indigestion brought on by Cele has been given a Rennies for a while, and the Arms Deal has been kicked into touch in a way that can’t really rebound on him. Not a bad day at the office really.

But wait, there’s more. He’s also shown he can be a man of action, that he can take decisions.

Even more importantly than all of that, he’s sent out the message that he is powerful, that he is really the person in charge. He’s warned all of his political opponents, particularly those who feel the need to protest outside his front door, that he is prepared to act. And that he’s prepared to even turn on his good, former friends (like Cele) if that’s what it will take. It’s a powerful message indeed. And those who hear the elephant walk towards them would do right to tremble. DM



Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photos: Reuters.

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