Opinionista Stephen Grootes 15 July 2013

Return to Zuma’s reshuffle

President Jacob Zuma’s reshuffle last week, and the lack of stated reasons for it, has resulted in the usual outpouring of speculation. Some of it has come from the likes of myself. In the meantime, a nice little row has sprung up about whether Number One has to give reasons for his actions in this case or not.

Some say that he has a duty to be accountable and transparent, and thus must give reasons. But to do so would actually be a partial negation of the President’s Constitutional power. It would also have huge implications for the effectiveness of governance, and would have negative unintended consequence for the entire government.

Around the world, reshuffles are difficult for political leaders. It may seem like fun to move your chess pieces around, but what you really do is create enemies. With every person you fire, you create someone who automatically has a desire to get revenge. As Thabo Mbeki could most very definitely tell you, reshuffles should not be done too often, and must be managed carefully.

That’s why the announcements are always late. About once every eighteen months, the Presidency announces an “urgent” press conference, everyone knows it’s a reshuffle, and we rush over, tongues hanging out in excitement. Five hours later, everyone’s still waiting, and the grumbling starts. The twittersphere starts to get going about how we’re always waiting for Zuma, and what a lack of respect he shows the public, you know the drill. But in fact, the media announcement is the easiest part of his day. He’s had to work out what changes to make, consult Luthuli House, contact the fired ministers, find the new ones, and make sure it’s all done properly. All under the most incredible tension of trying to keep it secret. A leak halfway through this process would derail the whole thing.

A president has a right, with the appropriate checks and balances, to govern. There is an implicit trade-off here. The Number One has to be able to democratically manage the state. In all democracies, this means balancing constituencies, sometimes through genuinely improving their lives for the long-term, like the ANC and say water provision, and sometimes through good old-fashioned political pork, so beloved in the American system.

As the president has to govern through a Cabinet system, our Constitution quite explicitly says “The president appoints the ministers and deputy ministers, assigns their powers and functions, and may dismiss them.” The president is the political MacDaddy, ministers are simply his crew.

This is why Cabinet is above our labour law. If you are appointed by the president, he doesn’t legally have to go through any type of channel or procedure to fire you. He just rings you up, and suggests you may have a passing interest in the 7’o clock news. The same holds true for our provincial Cabinets.

There are very important reasons for this. As reshuffles are hard to manage anyway, they would become virtually impossible to arrange if reasons had to be stated. Can you imagine Number One being forced to say “I fired Sexwale because he funded Julius”? It might be fun for you and me, a sound-byte you’d hear again and again (and would no doubt get re-mixed before going on high rotation on every radio breakfast show in the nation), but would have huge political implications.

It would mean that Sexwale would be forced to give a public comment in response, and before you know it, you’d have a massive political ding-dong for the next six months.

Dina Pule could be even worse. Remember the press conference she gave about the Sunday Times team that nailed her on what looks like corruption? Her claims were bizarre, completely insane, and certainly unsustainable. Imagine if Number One had to say he was firing her because she was corrupt? She would then no doubt make just the most amazing, and possibly false claims about him. She would also be able to sue, saying she hasn’t been convicted in a court of law. Which would then make a sitting president having to delay even further the sacking of someone who everyone knew to be corrupt. This would result in more corruption.

In an environment where, for the president involved, the biggest consequences are all political, to have to publicly state true and accurate reasons could result in chaos. Due to the murky nature of almost all politics, giving reasons can negate the power. You would have the legal power to fire ministers, but if the outcome is going to be so politically calamitous that you then avoid that decision, you would in fact avoid reshuffles altogether. This would mean you no longer have the power to actually perform your constitutionally mandated function to “appoint” and “dismiss” them.

And don’t forget, the real reason the Constitution gives the president this power, is because he has to be able to trust his ministers. He essentially rules through them.

There is, in fact, a slight legal precedent here. Back before Polokwane, Mbeki had a huge falling-out with the then head of the National Intelligence Agency, Billy Masethla. Eventually Masethla was fired. He sued, saying it amounted to unfair dismissal. The Constitutional Court then held that because there was a need for a president and his spy chief to have a completely trusting relationship, should that relationship break down, the chief must go. It did insist on a pay-out, but the point was made. A president should be able to rely on his top officials. If he can no longer rely on a minister, who is a political appointment, for some reason, he should have the right to fire them.

However, that doesn’t mean we will live in an unaccountable state, where information will not flow freely. There is nothing stopping the president from making public his reasons. He could quite legally go on television and say “I’m sacking Tokyo ‘cos he opposed me at Mangaung”. The only reason he doesn’t is that there would be political repercussions.

And there’s the fact that, as always with a sacking, when it happens, there are two people in the room, or on the phone. The president, doing the firing, and the person losing their job. It is very likely that both will know the real reasons for the firing. Pule knows why she has been fired, there’s nothing stopping her from saying “It’s because I’m corrupt”. Sexwale knows, too, and could easily make the quite believable claim that it was simply pay-back. The fact that he hasn’t is simply because he is putting the politics of his future above his feelings over this incident.

When it has mattered, when someone has been fired because of very real policy differences that mattered, it actually has come out. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was sacked by Mbeki in 2007. At first Mbeki’s office refused to confirm she’d been fired, then when it did, it refused to say why. But she came out, held a press conference, and explained it was because she’d opposed Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s stance on ARVs. As Madlala-Routledge put it, Tshabalala-Msimang promised “I will fix you”. Mbeki could always have offered his own version for the sacking, but, quite typically, he didn’t.

The fact that Number One has not given reasons for his actions last week is in fact a political decision all on its own. He could give reasons, or he could not. If he had, the chance of negative consequences for him were simply greater than the chances of negative consequences of staying silent. And there are negative consequences for not giving reasons. Political and media types hate a vacuum, and will fill the information void with rumour and speculation. Public speculation by writers like this one is probably something Number One can live with. But political rumour within the ANC can actually be quite damaging. So it was a distinct decision.

But it will lead to questions about why people were moved. Why the swap between Ben Martins and Dipuo Peters at Transport and Energy? Was one or both corrupt? Does Martins know something about Waterkloof we don’t? Does Peters believe solar power is the answer, and is trying to stop the nuclear project? Or was one simply caught between the sheets with the CEO of a major player in their sector? Why was Andries Nel moved from Justice? Did he simply believe it was time to appoint a new National Prosecuting Authority head?

None of this is probably true, but there will be claims, rumour and innuendo about it for months to come, because it’s such a strange decision, and has not been adequately explained.

In the final analysis, it is in the interests of good governance, and perhaps stable politics, that in this case there is no legal duty on Zuma to be more transparent in this case. And there are good reasons for this. But it does mean there will be more speculation about why he’s taken these decisions.

And for people like me, speculation is far more fun than fact any day. (Smiley face.) DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, 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.


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