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Is our President a lame duck?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

That President Jacob Zuma is a placatory leader has never been in doubt, ever since his ascension to power by riding the wave of populist outrage against the erstwhile incumbent Thabo Mbeki. But the events of the last few weeks, specifically the last fortnight, prompt the question; has he taken that fatal extra step from being merely populist, to a fully fledged lame-duck?

There were sighs of relief all around when Zuma issued his statement on political conduct and social cohesion. For the first time, Julius Malema was publicly slapped down by the leader of the ANC. News of an impending disciplinary hearing against the ANC Youth League president later surfaced. Then we heard there were no actual charges against Malema. Now it seems that he’ll indeed face a disciplinary hearing on the 3 May, chaired by Derek Hanekom. Typical lack of coherence from Luthuli House.

For most South Africans, the events of the past fortnight have illuminated just how awkward Zuma’s position is. When he issued his statement of condemnation against the ANCYL, most believed that was the end of the matter. As it turns out, even the president of the ANC, together with the party’s secretary general, need considerable political backing from within the party to be able to make the leader of the Youth League face disciplinary charges.

All of this goes to the very heart of what I believe to be Jacob Zuma’s weakness: His leadership style. Leadership is about setting agendas, instilling vision, identifying problems and initiating the process of improvement. In an organisation such as the tripartite alliance, which is essentially a cobbling together of various interest groups, the skills of balancing interests and maintaining cohesion are important as well. Zuma emphasises unity above all else. “Cohesion at all costs” is his policy.

Let’s not forget the conditions under which Zuma was crowned. Cosatu and the South African Communist Party wanted someone who would be willing to give an ear to their lobbies. The ANC was probably just sick of Mbeki’s authoritarian leadership style. News24 columnist Khaya Dlanga pointed out in a recent blog post on Thought Leader that a lot of the current leadership were the outcasts of previous regimes. They wanted their turn at the feeding trough and Zuma was their best shot.

The result of this is a president who is dead in the water, unwilling to take a decisive position on any issue lest he disrupt his precious cohesion. Or even worse, unable to take a decisive position for fear of incurring the wrath of any one of the factions that brought him to power.

Even more frightening, Zuma’s leadership seems to have been circumvented by Malema and his faction of nationalists. Almost every single statement issued by the ANC in the last six weeks has been about Malema. The ANC has been bogged down in the matter of Malema’s mouth since that fateful day at the University of Johannesburg when he sang “that” song. Combine that with the Hitachi Power Africa imbroglio, and you have a ruling party that is truly stuck, going absolutely nowhere. The party leadership is hung up with defending Malema. How much of this was part of the Polokwane resolutions? How much time is the ANC spending delivering on its Polokwane mandate? The ANC’s battle lines have been drawn by Julius Malema. Remember Mbeki’s tenure? Whose battles did the party fight back then?

Unfortunately for Zuma, the different players within the alliance seem to be at conflict with each other. What the socialists want is clearly at loggerheads with what the nationalists want. Unity is out of the question. Whichever direction he chooses, he’s going to have to stomp on toes.

It’s high time we faced up to the fact that Julius Malema isn’t going anywhere, at least until the ANC Youth League’s election conference in 2011. Hopefully, he’ll have made enough enemies within the Youth League to make his re-election nigh impossible.

Can Zuma get out of the position he’s put himself in? Probably not. He’s not going to be able to take the ANC anywhere now, not without jilting at least one of the factions which brought him to power. Sadly for him, this is one of those times when he’s going to have to do what’s best for everyone – rein in the nationalists. His policy of conciliation at all costs is going to have to take the back seat. In order to do the right thing, he’s going to have to risk pissing some people off. Will he do it, though?

Don’t hold your breath.


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