South Africa

The Zuma presidency, four years on: Point of no return?

By Ranjeni Munusamy 10 May 2013

“This is a moment of renewal,” President Jacob Zuma said at his inauguration as South Africa’s fourth democratically elected president. Following an incredible political comeback after being fired as deputy president and two turbulent court trials, Zuma looked ready to lead the country into a new era. It was the age of innocence: Julius Malema was still en vogue, Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande still liked each other, Kgalema Motlanthe still had a political future and we had never even heard of Riah Phiyega. Or Waka Waka. Lonmin was just a platinum company and Dina Pule was wearing normal shoes. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

After a sudden torrential downpour on an autumn morning in 2009, President Jacob Zuma stood on the stage in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings and took his oath of office in which he pledged to “observe and maintain the Constitution of the republic”. “I will devote myself to the well-being of the republic and all of its people. So help me God,” he said, as the guests and dignitaries in the amphitheatre as well as the crowd on the lawn below broke into loud applause.

Despite the uncertainty of the months which preceded the 2009 election – former president Thabo Mbeki’s recall, resignations from Cabinet and Kgalema Motlanthe’s brief stint as holding president – Zuma delivered a feel-good, magnanimous speech at his inauguration. He acknowledged the roles of all his predecessors since 1994, and even recognised FW De Klerk’s participation in shaping a new South Africa.

In spite of the torrid relationship he had with Mbeki, Zuma called him “a true statesman” who, by agreeing to step down, “demonstrated his patriotism, and put the interests of the country above his personal interests”. He also thanked “my friend, comrade and brother President Kgalema Motlanthe” who, Zuma said, came into office “during a period of great anxiety, and brought about calm, stability and certainty”.

With that, Zuma said he was taking his oath of office “deeply conscious of the responsibilities that you, the people of our country are entrusting in me”.

“I commit myself to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion. There is a lot to be done. More than 11.6 million South Africans voted for the ANC, based on the programme put before them. We are now called upon to implement our manifesto. The dreams and hopes of all the people of our country must be fulfilled. There is no place for complacency, no place for cynicism, no place for excuses,” Zuma said.

Four years later, under the weight of severe criticism of his administration and attempts to pass a motion of no confidence in his leadership, it is difficult to believe that the same person who started out saying there should be no excuses for failure is now using Apartheid to explain its ongoing problems.

With statements such as this, Zuma shored up much goodwill towards his presidency: “To achieve all our goals, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of service, probity and integrity. Together we must build a society that prizes excellence and rewards effort, which shuns laziness and incompetence.”

But now, a year from the completion of his first term of office, these seem to be empty, meaningless declarations. When it came to accountability for state funds being used for renovations for Zuma’s private home at Nkandla or the non-delivery of textbooks to schoolchildren in Limpopo, “service, probity and integrity” did not feature.

Laziness and incompetence in Cabinet have yet to be “shunned” as the likes of  Lulu Xingwana and Dina Pule run their respective departments into the ground. If Zuma did not set the example with his own team, how does he hope for society to prize excellence and reward effort?

Zuma pledged that “we shall not rest, and we dare not falter” as long as there are women who are subjected to discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Yet South Africa has experienced some of the worst incidents of sexual violence and women and child abuse on his watch. While Zuma cannot be held directly responsible for the evil acts of others, when he took his oath of office, he accepted responsibility for leading and shaping a safe, humane society. Therefore if the criminal justice system is failing the victims of violence, the buck stops with Zuma to intervene.

“Today, we renew our struggle to forge a nation that is at peace with itself and the world,” Zuma said back then. But South Africa has never been as restless a nation as it is now, with anger spilling over on the streets in protests and strikes. The SAPS has been used as a buffer between the state and the citizens rather than a service to protect civilians.

We cannot claim to be at peace with ourselves with the levels of extreme violence in our society, including by the state. Under the Zuma administration, the police service became militarised with an iron-fist approach to policing. But after the change of leadership following the axing of former national police commissioner Bheki Cele, it is not clear, particularly to police officers on the ground, whether they are still meant to have a “shoot to kill” attitude. The new commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has been unable to provide that direction, and the uncertainty has seen police officers take the law into their own hands.

The killing and injury of mineworkers at Marikana by the police, and the deaths of 13 soldiers in the Central African Republic has also shown that it requires proper leadership at political level to preserve and protect human life. When it comes to the armed forces, the failure of political leadership can and has been deadly.

While Zuma has been president, South Africa has suffered downgrades by international ratings agencies, the deficit has escalated in order to finance the operation of the state and the efficiency of local government has been greatly diminished. Scandal and corruption has forced him to reshuffle his Cabinet three times, and the presidency has been embarrassed by disastrous high-profile appointments in the state, such as the choice of Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions which was reversed by the courts.

But while there has been a general downward spiral, it has not all been bad. South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup was a tremendous success and for those two months, the country shone as the world looked on in admiration.

There were times when Zuma looked like he would be a hands-on president who would tackle poor performance and dysfunction in government, such as when he made unscheduled visits to municipalities and communities to check on service delivery. However, this turned out to be a flash in the pan and he has not kept it up.

The Zuma government has made remarkable progress in the treatment of HIV/Aids, particularly in reducing new infections and mother-to-child transmission. On international relations, South Africa’s admission into Brics has given it new diplomatic sway and holds the prospect of increasing opportunities for trade and investment.

The National Development Plan has been completed and its diagnostic report provides a useful guide for what is going wrong in the country and what can be done to improve it. However, aspects of the plan being contested by Cosatu could jeopardise implementation, and as yet there is no process to bring the opposite sides any closer.

While the matric pass rate has increased, there is clearly a decline in the standard of education, particularly in the crucial subjects of maths and science. From the start of his administration, Zuma declared education as the apex priority of government but has been unable to ensure the level of teaching and learning he himself hoped for.

During his tenure as president, Zuma has survived two attempts to pass a motion of no confidence in his leadership. The ANC has been able to stop the tabling of the motion through its parliamentary majority and not because it was able to argue that Zuma was succeeding at his job. His government has also been dogged by contentious issues such as e-tolling, the Protection of State Information Bill, the on again/off again youth wage subsidy and the Gupta family’s almighty influence on the state.

In the last four years, Zuma has consolidated political power within the ANC, sweeping to a decisive victory for a second term as party president and crushing detractors like Julius Malema.

But his leadership of the state is a far cry from what he himself imagined it would be four years ago. “Everything we do must contribute in a direct and meaningful way to the improvement of the lives of our people,” he said then.

When Zuma began his presidency, there were high hopes and goodwill for him to succeed in the targets he set. It was neither in the national nor individual citizen’s interests to wish him to fail. When a president fails, the country fails. In the past four years, South Africa has looked on in astonishment as his administration lurched from one crisis to another. Even by his own standards, and in his own mind, Zuma cannot believe that his presidency has been a success.

Zuma now has one year to set his administration on the right path and rectify the things which are causing his government to fail repeatedly. While there are things that can never be undone, such as the massacre of 34 mineworkers or splurges of taxpayers’ money, the system which allowed these to happen can still be fixed.

South Africa deserves the type of president Zuma promised to be when he said: “I commit myself to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion”. It does not deserve the president Zuma became.

Only the future will show if Zuma has crossed the point of no return. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma (Jordi Matas)

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