South Africa

Zuma’s right to remain silent vs. accountability and transparency

By Ranjeni Munusamy 12 July 2013

The presidency issued a terse statement this week explaining that President Jacob Zuma does not need to explain his surprise Cabinet reshuffle. “The Presidency wishes to remind the opinion makers that the President of the Republic uses his prerogative when appointing members to the National Executive. He does not need to provide reasons.” Thing is, prerogative relates to the president’s right to appoint whomever he wants. It does not, however, supersede transparency and accountability, which we would like to remind the Presidency is guaranteed in the Constitution. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

For over a month now, the Presidency has been issuing regular updates on the health of former president Nelson Mandela while he has been receiving treatment at a Pretoria hospital. While no details can be provided on Madiba’s exact condition in order to maintain his privacy, the updates from the Presidency have come to be accepted by the nation and the world as assurance that the former statesman is in good care, even though the words “critical but stable” convey little in meaning.

Uppermost in everyone’s mind is that Mandela is comfortable and receiving the best medical treatment. And considering the news blackout that we have had to previously endure during one of Mandela’s earlier hospital stays, the stock statements being issued are at least a sign that Presidency understands it needs to say something – even if it is the absolute bare minimum titbit of information.

While this may suffice when it comes to the health of Nelson Mandela because of exceptional circumstances, it is not a one-size-fits-all communications strategy for running the South African government. Yet that’s what happened this week when President Jacob Zuma announced changes to the Cabinet without any explanation as to why he found it necessary to do so. He fired three ministers, promoted two deputies to full ministers, swopped two Cabinet members around and elevated some MPs to the executive.

Few people are sorry to see the back of Dina Pule, the former Communications Minister who used her department to sponsor her love affair and failed hopelessly to provide political leadership in the important portfolio. Equally, Richard Baloyi is destined to disappear into the political wilderness after being one of the least visible and worst performing members of Cabinet.

Tokyo Sexwale certainly created the impression that he was busy in the Human Settlements portfolio, but was performing below par in terms of actual results. However, as compared to several duds in the Cabinet, his unceremonious axing could only be explained in the context of his failed bid to challenge Zuma for leadership of the ANC at last December’s national conference in Mangaung.

But in all the commentary and analyses in the aftermath of the Cabinet reshuffle, there is no conclusive explanation as to why Zuma acted this week, and why he made the changes he did. His rather sullen sign-off at the media conference where he announced the changes added further intrigue to the motivation behind a fourth reshuffle in four years, and one so close to the national elections in 2014. Unless all the new appointees have been given guarantees that they will remain in their posts after next year’s elections, it is difficult to fathom how they will derive any tangible results in less than 10 months.

A day after the reshuffle, the presidency issued a media statement saying it had noted “complaints” from some media houses and commentators that Zuma did not provide reasons for the changes. It wheeled out the explanation that the president “uses his prerogative” when appointing members to the Cabinet and therefore “does not need to provide reasons”. Whoever wrote the statement is under the misconception that presidential prerogative extends beyond appointing who the president wishes to serve in his executive to not needing to be accountable for his actions.

Perhaps it is Zuma’s disdain for the media or belief that by saying little, he will starve the news monster that informs his approach. Perhaps he forgets that the media is the channel to the 51 million people he presides over, including those he will be asking to vote for him and the ANC next year. Perhaps it does not occur to the president that there are industries and constituencies that function around every government portfolio, which are left disorientated by sudden moves without explanation in the Cabinet. Are they also supposed to guess like the media as to what prompted the moves and try to forge relationships with the new political heads in a few months, without any clue about the impact on their sector?

Perhaps Zuma has also forgotten his State of the Nation speech in February this year when he said: “We are duty bound to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic. We will spare no effort in doing so.” The Constitution is unambiguous that the president is accountable for his actions and also that citizens have the right to information.

So why should it matter to citizens that the president moves around members of his executive and fires others? Because unless we know the reason behind the moves, it’s all in the realm of guessing. For example, we do not know why Ben Martins was moved out of the Transport portfolio and Dipuo Peters was moved into it. Has Peters been given a new mandate on the issue of e-tolling?

The lack of housing and sanitation are the reasons for dozens of service delivery protests every year. These will also be major election issues next year. Why was Connie September chosen to head this portfolio? What is her brief? How will she relate to communities that are up in arms? All these questions are pertinent for the millions of people whose lives are affected by these government portfolios.

It is unfair to expect the new appointees to step up and answer all the burning questions around their dysfunctional departments on the turn as they still have to orientate themselves with their new portfolios. They, too, must wonder why they were chosen. In the information-starved atmosphere, we can only hope that they were given proper briefs and not handed blank cheques.

It is bizarre that Zuma would behave with such contempt towards his citizens when this was the very thing he found objectionable about Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. He found it inexplicable that Mbeki cut himself off from the people of his country and rotated around his own axis. Zuma used to love interacting with ordinary people, hearing about their lives and sharing his views. His security detail had endless problems trying to separate him from the crowd once he was part of it. Now he has locked himself in an ivory tower, quite similar to the one which was bulldozed when Mbeki was recalled.

In a few months, though, we will see a metamorphosis back to the “Man of the People” when Zuma hits the election trail. Then he’ll be back to embracing ordinary people and willing to talk about the work of his government.

It is difficult to reconcile this image with the man who has consistently avoided answering questions on Nkandla, the Guptas and the appointment of the National Prosecuting Authority head, and defers responsibility for everything that goes wrong in his government.

The right to remain silent comes handy many times, but a sign of leadership it is not. Zuma might have the prerogative to appoint and dismiss members of his Cabinet, but the South African voter has the ultimate prerogative as to where they put their cross on the ballot paper. And if Zuma is given back his prerogative next year, what will he do with it for another five years? Don’t count on him telling you. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma on the last day of the ANC’s 53rd conference which saw Zuma tighten his hold on the ANC.  Mangaung 20 December 2012  (Greg Marinovich / NewsFire)

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