The debate in the media on who really runs the country has caused unnecessary consternation and much teeth-grinding among some in the ruling elite who view it as undermining President Jacob Zuma.
ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte says the debate creates the impression that Zuma is a stooge. But we need not travel the path of this psychoanalysis to understand where the media debate comes from.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe called the ministers responsible for the occupation-specific dispensation two months ago to Luthuli House to account for themselves after it became clear that differences with the trade unions over the issue could lead to paralysis in the public service. He lambasted Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan for unilaterally trying to change ANC policy after she said that government could not bail out unprofitable state entities indefinitely.
It was a tough approach by Mantashe, who views his role as ensuring that ministers deployed by the ruling party implement ANC policy to the letter. It is important to note that Hogan made comments about selling off some underperforming parastatals in her government capacity. And there was no censure from government.
Juxtapose this with the response earlier this year when Hogan criticised a government decision to bar the Dalai Lama from coming to South Africa. It was the government under former president Kgalema Motlanthe that took her to task and forced her to apologise.
What has changed since, you may ask? Why is the government silent, leaving the ANC to pronounce? It is a legitimate question that begs an answer.
Polokwane empowered the secretary general to be much more proactive and not to be steamrolled by the president — one of many resolutions that were a direct response to Thabo Mbeki’s regime.
Understanding Polokwane resolutions is a whole new game not only for the media, but also for the ANC structures, which are still coming to terms with them. They can be complex for everyone, as ANC provincial structures discovered to their horror recently when they learned that they could not choose their premiers — something they thought they had fought for and won in Polokwane. The debate about where power lies comes partly from that. If Polokwane was about curbing the unfettered powers of the president, where have the powers been devolved? Who is actually running the show?
The debate is bigger than individual names. When Mbeki was president it was evident that he took active control of matters. He had an inner core that helped him, made up of people such as Essop Pahad, Joel Netshitenzhe, Mojanku Gumbi, Sydney Mufamadi and Frank Chikane. But he was his own man.
When Nelson Mandela was president, it was common cause that the guy attending to the nuts and bolts of the government was his deputy, Mbeki. He oversaw all departmental work and coordinated it all while Mandela ran the equally important project of nation-building.
Did anyone complain then that Mandela was being characterised as a stooge? No.
Zuma himself has answered this question in a manner that does not create the impression that he was personally wounded by the question being raised or any imaginable insinuation that might accompany it. An analysis of power and transition is the most natural story of any new government, particularly one that tries to position and project itself differently.
This is why today the world is still asking whether Dick Cheney was the real power behind George W Bush’s throne or whether Vladimir Putin continues to be the real president of Russia despite handing over the reins to Dmitry Medvedev.
Over and above the ANC asserting control, there are now five men at the apex of the presidency — the president himself, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, ministers Collins Chabane and Trevor Manuel and Director General Vusi Mavimbela. There are also the president’s advisers, Charles Nqakula, Mandisi Mpahlwa and Lindiwe Zulu.
Telling the story of Jacob Zuma’s presidency will involve trying to understand who in this web of relationships has the president’s ear and influences decisions. Doing precisely that is not a malicious plot to cast aspersions on the president.
I often suspect that many who purport to protect President Zuma display a quixotic zeal to destroy a straw person. It is one thing to challenge misinformed and inaccurate information and analysis being fed the public by the media but quite another to label as heresy the debate around power.