An anatomy of failure

Taking stock after nearly eight months in office, what is the ‘State of Zuma”? Because I had low expectations, he has exceeded them. I had low expectations not because I am cynical or because of Zuma’s limitations per se, but because I have learned to be realistic about what an individual political leader can do with problems of the scale, density and complexity of the modern age.

As he is bound, therefore, to fail, does it matter how badly? Which calls to mind Toby Ziegler’s recall in the iconic West Wing series of the exchange between Princes Richard and Geoffrey in The Lion in Winter as they hear King Henry approach their dungeon: ‘You fool! As if it matters how a man falls down,” says Geoffrey. And Richard says, ‘When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

Zuma is failing rather well — or better than expected. With the ignoble exceptions of advocate Lawrence Mushwana to the human rights commission and Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions, his appointments have been solid — unspectacular and largely uncontroversial.

His Cabinet resembles that of a coalition government — with the full span of the ANC’s broad church finding representation. Pluralism and the ethos of collective leadership have returned.

There has been more common sense in the past six months than in the previous six years. The influence of the unions and their down-to-earth appreciation of the needs and interests of the working — and unemployed — men and women of South Africa has been brought to bear.

The government is more consensual, more consultative. But there is a titanic battle going on around the control of macroeconomic policy. And because he is inclined to listen to both sides and to seek to mediate, there tends to be an awful lot of dither and fudge.

For example, Zuma let the argument about the National Planning Commission (NPC) run for several weeks before finally rejecting the entreaties of Cosatu and SACP leadership, whose idea the NPC was, and who understandably don’t want Trevor Manuel to ‘privatise” long-term planning to a bunch of elite technocrat commissioners. Nor, in fact, does Manuel: it is Zuma who insisted on the design formulation in the NPC green paper.

Why? Because he needs a mechanism — a vessel — for resolving the inevitable conflicts and turf battles between his most powerful Cabinet ministers.

Compared with Thabo Mbeki, Zuma gives his ministers a long leash. But they will come to realise that they are sometimes running on shifting sands, uncertain of the depth of his support and unclear whether he will back them on tough decisions.

Has he clarified the relationship of the minister of planning (Manuel), the new ministry of economic development (Ebrahim Patel) and the treasury (Pravin Gordhan)? No: because Zuma is probably not terribly clear himself. What he should have done was brought the three of them into a room and told them ‘no one is leaving until we sort this out”.

Instead, they must navigate it themselves without the political GPS of lucid presidential leadership. Patel, in particular, without line functions or budget, is having to influence via ‘thought leadership” by operating like an NGO within government, calling seminars and delicately probing the existing homogeneity of macro-economic thinking.

Zuma’s greatest political skill is his (re)conciliatory abilities. But there is a desperately thin line between conciliation and vacillation. This — and the sanctity of constitutional justice — is the core faultline of the Zuma administration.

Though it is a harsh criticism, Zuma may be listening too much, or perhaps more accurately, to too many people. During the weeklong, damaging hiatus around the leadership of Eskom, Zuma met some people who should have got nowhere near the West Wing to peddle their self-serving agendas.

His gatekeepers need to be more incisive and strategic. With leaders such as Zuma or Ronald Reagan, where the leader’s self-prescribed role is to place a light hand on the policy tiller, the presidential advisers are critical. And, in that respect, the precise, full anatomy of power is still to emerge.

University of Cape Town law professor Pierre de Vos’s blog, Constitutionally Speaking, injects welcome life into public discourse about the country’s founding document.

But in describing Zuma’s decision to appoint Simelane as that of a ‘gangster hell bent on protecting himself and his cronies”, De Vos crossed the not-so-thin line between dynamic expressions of vehement disagreement and incendiary insult.

Some of us are quick to spot when Julius Malema crosses it, so we should respect it assiduously ourselves. We cannot complain about the ugliness of the public discourse if we are adding to its degradation.

The presidency took the rare step of responding to the blog, when it complained about the use of the word ‘gangster” this week. That it chose not to reject the ‘protecting himself and his cronies” bit should not be taken, I suppose, as an admission of the charge.

The jury remains firmly out on Zuma and the rule of law. Thanks to the grimy political deal that was done just before the election, the president will never escape the doubts about his probity.
These concerns will continue to hang over his presidency, even if he tiptoes over egg shells for the next five years on matters of law, justice and the Constitution.

Simelane’s appointment represents a massive size 12 boot right through to the yolk. He is an ­obedient apparatchik who will do his master’s bidding, whether in clearing up the remaining detritus of the Zuma investigation itself or the related festering sore of the arms deal.

The silver lining is that the department of justice is released from Simelane’s suffocating embrace. He was an appalling director general, blocking progress and treating citizens as subjects and his political masters and mistresses as feudal rulers.

  • Richard Calland’s new book — Zuma’s World: South Africa’s New Anatomy of Power — will be published next year.
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    Richard Calland
    Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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