That we are living through what historians might call the Age of Scandal cannot be disputed. From Nkandla, to Guptagate, from Khulubuse to Schabir, many of them have one person in common. Number One. Things have now reached the point where President Jacob Zuma is seen as almost personally responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. This happens in many democracies, but what if... what if Jacob Zuma were not president? What would the situation look like? And would any of our fundamental problems really be solved? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Jacob Zuma has come to symbolise a major problem in South Africa. Perhaps the example he sets does have a corrosive effect on people in other government institutions, or maybe corruption in the ANC has almost nothing to do with him.
It would be understandable at this point for many people to suggest we just avoid this particular rabbit hole. After all, Zuma is going nowhere. And his supporters, quite rightly, would point to the public mandate he has received as leader of the most popular party, and to the internal mandate issued at Polokwane and renewed at Mangaung. However, Zuma, and the dust his scandals have kicked up, could be obscuring some of the real issues. It is also worth asking if the ANC would really be that different without him. And this does help us to try to predict what South Africa would be like, if, and when, he departs the political stage.
Considering Zuma’s strange ascent to power, the conviction of Schabir Shaik, the rape trial, the many scandals, and of course, twin disasters of his relationship with the Guptas and Nkandla itself, there are many people who have come to believe that the issue of corruption is completely intertwined with him personally. The coalition of the wounded led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa often seems quite happy that the subtext of its messages against corruption often signal the union is really campaigning against Zuma. If, and when, its anti-corruption march happens, it will probably be pretty tough to find anyone who supports Zuma in attendance.
It is certainly true that Zuma has come to symbolise a major problem. There is probably a role that he does play in almost legitimising it. It’s hard to draw a straight line from Zuma to the Metro cop who demands a cool drink. But perhaps, perhaps, the example he sets does have a corrosive effect on people in other government institutions.
That said, corruption in the ANC has almost nothing to do with Zuma. If he were removed from the picture, it would still be very much part of the current political situation. It was former president and deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, who said, before the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane in 2007, “This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.” In some of the more rural provinces, which receive less media attention, it’s well known how the local ANC barons live lives of luxury from ill-gotten gains. ANC Northern Cape leader John Block is just one example. And the power these provincial leaders hold over ANC leadership elections means that for the moment, whoever becomes the leader of the ANC is going to be in political debt to them.
Then there is the simple issue of governance. Zuma often appears to be less than interested in governing, in making simple decisions. Often nothing is done about a situation until a crisis point is reached, and then there is some sort of long commission or inquiry. He is often criticised for not doing much, or anything. The crises in almost every parastatal, or at Sars, are good examples. But one of the main reasons he may appear to do nothing is that the best way to maintain power in the ANC is to do nothing. It’s a consequence of the broadness of this particular political church that to go in one direction or another, left or right, is to lose friends and supporters. Whoever leads the ANC in the future is going to have that same problem.
And of course, the biggest governance issue of our time, Eskom and the lack of power, have nothing to do with Zuma at all; the roots of it were planted well before he had power, and the complete disaster of Medupi has far more to do with labour dynamics than his personality.
But there are some areas where the South Africa’s reality could be different. Surely almost any leader would be assertive enough to appoint leaders for government agencies and parastatals, without leaving these important players in a complete limbo that is seriously damaging this country. Just as one example, Zuma has chosen not to appoint a proper cabinet or government spokesman, leaving the ever-professional Phumla Williams in the acting role for NEARLY THREE YEARS, ever since someone decided there was an over-concentration of Mzwanele Jimmy Manyis in government.
And that leads us to another closely related aspect, which tends to reveal Zuma’s personal nature and style: while he is street fighter and tactician of highest quality, he appears to be a less of a strategist. He appears to be making his decisions while primarily concerned with his own political short-term gains, while damaging the country, and possibly the ANC itself, in the longer term. Some of the people around Zuma, such as South African Airways (SAA) chairwoman Dudu Myeni, appear to have real political power, while having no other discernible skills. Former SAA CEO Monwabisi Kalawe claimed in court papers that an argument she had with Malusi Gigaba led to Gigaba being moved from public enterprises. But Myeni simply doesn’t have the skill and experience to run SAA. Her only qualification appears to be her other job, that of running the Zuma Foundation. There are plenty of other examples of this; Hlaudi Motsoeneng at the SABC comes to mind immediately.
Considering the patronage networks inside our state-owned entities are now entrenched, it seems likely that there would be some kind of similar dynamic in place should Zuma not be ANC leader. But it’s hard to know. If the ANC has so many instances of corrupt cadres and poor governance at the moment, why didn’t this happen at such regular pace during Thabo Mbeki’s time?
The answer is that the roots of it were being laid back then, and that the ANC has simply changed, and probably would have with or without Zuma. Mbeki came to power when the ANC was still really grounded in liberation and the Struggle; now it’s simply a normal political party with a useful history and absolute majority in the Parliament. The people it has attracted, and who have done well in the ANC, have changed. Zuma could not have stopped that.
There are course, areas where the situation would be very different without Zuma being Number One.
It doesn’t take Steven Friedman to tell you that the first would be the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the justice system more generally. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that when Zuma became president, the position of national director of public prosecutions was actually vacant, after Mbeki had suspended Vusi Pikoli. But, if we assume the the person who was president didn’t have the particular retirement problem that Zuma faces (that the criminal charges could be reinstated), the NPA would surely be more stable than it is now.
Also, Zuma’s particular fondness for the securocrats means they have gained ascendency in some debates. It’s hard to think that cellphones would have been jammed and MPs physically removed from the National Assembly earlier this year if Zuma were not president. But there are other senior ANC figures that could be even heavier: Baleka Mbete has said that perhaps the first democratic Parliament went too far in the direction of openness and accessibility. Considering she was Speaker during Mbeki’s second term, perhaps that’s a sign this is not just about Zuma. On balance, though, Parliament would be more open than it is now.
What is certain, is that fewer MPs, and ministers (Nathi Nhleko, I’m looking at you) would spend their days defending their leader, just to protect the firepools in their own backyard.
One of the interesting aspects of this particular exercise is it that it also allows us to examine whether opposition parties are pursuing the right strategy in targeting Zuma. The Democratic Alliance went through a phase of starting each statement with “The Zuma ANC…” Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters have certainly tried to conflate the ANC with Zuma. These parties do this in an attempt to tarnish the entire name of the ANC with Nkandla. That is probably a mistake in the longer term. While it may benefit them during next year’s local government elections, come 2019 there will be a different person’s face on those election posters; all of that work will probably be lost.
Many of the problems we face in South Africa, the corruption, the sense of pure drift, have very little to do with Number One, and much more to do with a lack of greater political accountability. And that is caused by the simple fact that the ANC, and most of those within it, do not fear losing elections. When parties win with only 52% of the vote, they tend to govern very differently from those who win with 64%. Note how the ANC in Gauteng is governing after winning 53.59%. Zuma is simply a symptom of a much bigger problem, rather than its cause.
It is a mistake to think that much of this would change, were he no longer in power. There may be some more direction in economic policy, but only if someone won a convincing enough victory at an ANC conference. It is possible that that person might be more interested in simply governing, perhaps people would not be in acting positions for three years at a time. But it is by no means certain.
The only certainty really, is that until those in power fear losing it, the Alliance can continue to decay, the economy can slow down, and the corruption can continue, with very little change in course, whoever the Number One might be. DM
Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
Photo: South Africa’s President and leader of the ruling ANC party Jacob Zuma (C) greets his supporters as he arrives for the launch of his party’s election manifesto at Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit January 11, 2014. REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee
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