/ 4 May 2008

Do we want a lame-duck govt?

When was the last time you heard from Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa, Free State Premier Beatrice Marshoff, Northern Cape’s Dipuo Peters or even KwaZulu-Natal’s S’bu Ndebele? I reckon not lately. It may be true that some, such as Marshoff and Peters, have always had a low public profile anyway. But Shilowa and Ndebele?

As a newshound who always watches the movements of our government leaders, my distinct impression is that all of the above have noticeably kept a low profile in the past few months. The question is why? An adviser of one the premiers said they were winding down with elections approaching next year. He said they could not launch any new projects in their last few days in office and were therefore in a process of quiet consolidation.

But a conversation with other civil servants disclosed that we could be in the middle of the anticipated and much-feared state of paralysis of government. Yes, the two centres of power. This is a stage when there is government on the one side and the ANC on the other and there is competing power play about which has the last word on public policy.

Electricity, Zimbabwe, the International Marketing Council (IMC) and how to tackle the thorny crime problem are issues which show that, for the first time in years, opposition to government policy cannot be easily dismissed as coming from the ”recycled National Party” — the Democratic Alliance — or from the extraordinarily arrogant Blade Nzimande or the reckless Zwelinzima Vavi, but from the ruling party, the ANC.

The Mail & Guardian established this week that the ANC wants to take control of the South African National Aids Council and will minimise the authority that its political champion, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, enjoys over it.

The era of two centres of power is a unique time in history when the ANC tells its government deployees that their proposals to resolve the energy crisis are unacceptable (in public, nogal), when two government ministers, Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica and Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin, are twice summoned to Luthuli House and on both occasions agree to disagree with the ANC.

It is a telling moment when the ANC president, secretary-general and treasurer-general all scramble to be the first to say ”there is a crisis in Zimbabwe” after President Thabo Mbeki has insisted on the opposite.

This is a stage when a government minister, Essop Pahad, warns a government department, the IMC, to stop promoting his political principal, ANC president Jacob Zuma.

Liberals argue that the exchanges are good for democracy in that they fill a void which the opposition has failed to fill for years.

It certainly makes sense and is all lapped up as a breath of fresh air when Zuma makes the right noises about a lack of democracy in Zimbabwe.

For a moment even some who have spent the past few months spreading a sense of panic, hopelessness and desperation about the impending disaster of a Zuma presidency have started to see flashes of brilliance in the man.

With the ANC having taken over foreign affairs, Mbeki is left with nothing to do except to pay an unusual visit to King Mswati III in Swaziland last week!

Historians should tell us what we are to make of an ANC that attacks and disowns its own legacy. But is it really ideal when our premiers and ministers are afraid to undertake imbizos in communities because they fear being shouted down and embarrassed by the new opposition — their own ruling party, which deployed them to these positions?

The confidence and the aura of the premiers are long gone as they tread very carefully and watch their steps just in case they upset someone.

Just last week the premier of Mpumalanga, Thabang Makwetla, was threatened with the chop by the provincial ANC Youth League for saying what we all agree on: that the youth league congress was shambolic and the behaviour of the delegates embarrassing. My fear is that those ministers who believe that they are too closely associated with Mbeki could be so intimidated that they effectively leave us with paralysis — a lame-duck government.

Not all will emulate ANC veteran Kader Asmal, who in response to criticism of his education legacy sent Zuma a heap of documents and reminded him that it’s the legacy of everyone in the ANC, including Zuma.

We have a year to go before elections and South Africans expect government to govern, with or without the ANC breathing down its neck.