You will be assimilated
17 December 2017 16:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Cabinet reshuffle: A deal with the devil

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday aims to keep him in the pound seat, while the new ministers seem to have agreed to serve an executive who is not entirely honest.

In parliamentary systems around the world, Cabinet reshuffles provide an opportunity for a head of government to remove poor performers and put in place new members who are likely to give the ruling party a bounce in polling figures.

In South Africa’s political system, where polling figures are less important, reshuffles are primarily used to punish political enemies and to consolidate the power of those who support the president and his inner circle. While this is not uncommon in democracies, what is unusual in our context is the extent to which political loyalty trumps performance, and the degree to which even well-intentioned people find it difficult to say no to the offer to serve a deeply compromised chief executive.

Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle is the fourth since President Jacob Zuma came to power and is important because of its proximity to elections. With less than a year to go, this is likely to be the team that Zuma heads into the polls with.  In deciding who to axe, who to keep and who to add, he had to balance those who will be reliable in the hustling and those who will avoid embarrassment and not cause the electorate to vote with their feet.

In classic Zuma style, the announcement was strategically orchestrated to give with one hand, while taking away with the other. Zuma balanced his immediate political wants with the need to be seen making hard decisions. Despite this deft political manoeuvring, the result is clear – Zuma is in an untenable situation. He must keep his role as president of the country if he is to stave off the more than 700 corruption charges he would face if he allowed the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to function properly. In order to maintain the NPA’s dysfunction, he must remain king.

Zuma’s is a tried-and-tested approach used by many of his colleagues in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). For Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos, now in power for over two decades; for Swaziland’s King Mswati now entering year 23 as “monarch”; and for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe now in year 33, staying in power is the end game. While Zuma has not sought to extend his political career beyond what is legally sanctioned, there is no question that he would have many reasons to attempt this in the future. The charges will not simply disappear, which means the pressure to continue to hold office will only be amplified.

It is not just the endgame that Zuma shares with his regional colleagues; it is also the strategy and tactics of forcing his opponents to make difficult choices. By presenting people with positive steps at the same time as they are presented with regressive actions, you split the opposition, confuse the commentators, and are able to advance your agenda, while everyone scrambles to decide what to think and how to react.

Mswati used this approach in 2006 when he introduced a new constitution. After years of ignoring rights-based demands from Swazis, who were tired of living in the world’s last absolute monarchy, Mswati capitulated. The pretend process of developing the new document resulted in a constitution that was deeply flawed in all the ways that served the king, and provided important advances in ways that confused his citizenry.

So the Swazi constitution introduced a Bill of Rights that recognised the rights of women and allowed for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly (sort of). But crucially, the Swazi constitution bars political parties, forbidding Swazis to contest elections, and essentially guaranteeing that Mswati can rule forever.

In Zimbabwe, the 2008 power-sharing agreement between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change was another masterstroke by Mugabe. After stealing the elections (you may recall that there was a fishy six-week delay between voting and the announcement of the results), Mugabe managed to seem both magnanimous by “sharing power” (that was never his to share), while keeping a tight rein on his executive powers and therefore managing to evade accountability.

In the five years since the establishment of the national unity government in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has been able to be brazen in his flouting of the principles of democracy, and to reap the benefits of the efforts of the “junior” party in Cabinet – an MDC so desperate to prove it could govern, it entered into a deal with the devil. (If Mugabe can call one of our most accomplished and eloquent diplomats Lindiwe Zulu a street woman, I can sure as hell call him the devil.)

So in the South African context, we find ourselves in a similar place to that of the Swazi and Zimbabwean citizenry. We find ourselves at a place in which the flurry of forward and backward steps leave us confused and disoriented. We applaud even as we look on in dismay, wondering what our own devil will mete out next.

The president has played his cards well. He can be commended for sacking the horrendous communications minister Dina Pule, and in so doing, for being responsive to public opinion. He also gets credit for demonstrating that his head is not in the sand – that being terrible at your job has consequences.  Except, of course, he has hung onto his old buddy Angie Motshekga, who is to our education challenges what Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was to our HIV problem: a massive, obstinate and unconscionable stumbling block.

Zuma decision to hold on to a minister who has presided over numerous textbook scandals; who has failed to win the confidence of teachers; who has sorely let down parents; and who inspires no confidence in the pupils she has been appointed to serve, is inexplicable. Unlike public works minister Thulas Nxesi, who has a clear mandate to protect his boss, I am uncertain why Motshekga is still there. Her continued presence in Cabinet is an affront to all South Africans who pay taxes.

While there may be differing views on the merits and demerits of the performance of those such as Motshekga and Nxesi, what worries me more is the fact that a number of good people have made a deal with the devil by agreeing to serve in a Cabinet run by a president who has demonstrated serious kleptocratic tendencies.

In their defence, they probably think they are providing a moderating force and that their presence will somehow tip the scales in favour of progress. The reality is that despite their best intentions, they simply provide legitimacy to an enterprise that is becoming increasingly irredeemable.

The road to elections has begun and this Cabinet reshuffle is another marker on the long and bleak road ahead. There will be more giving and taking; more trickery and seduction. South Africans must be able to see the wood for the trees – if we fail, the consequences are dire. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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