Zuma keeps friends close, some enemies closer

President Jacob Zuma displayed his masterful chess skills with a major reshuffling of his executive on Sunday.

Zuma learned to play chess during his incarceration on Robben Island during the apartheid years, where his close friend and now Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim taught him the rules of the game.

Officially the reshuffle is to improve service delivery, but looking at the details, the political mathematics don’t add up.

The only victims in the Cabinet reshuffle to fit this explanation is Women, Children and People with Disabilities Minister Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya and Sports and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile. Their poor performances had been there for the world to see since the end of last year, when Mayende-Sibiya could not pull off any decent event to commemorate Women’s Month and Stofile was woefully absent from any serious discussion about the Soccer World Cup.

Consolidating power
The actual reason for the reshuffle is more likely for Zuma to show he has no political fear and to consolidate his power.

He finally got the opportunity to get rid of Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan—who defied him in the battles around Eskom—and pleased the ANC Women’s League by appointing former league secretary general Bathabile Dlamini to a full ministership.

Like the skilful chess player he is, Zuma moved to make changes among the pawns, but his castles and bishops remained firmly intact.

He showed political courage with the firing of Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda. Nyanda is a wildcard that former president Thabo Mbeki learned should not be underestimated. While Nyanda’s handling of his portfolio left a lot to be desired, the same can be said of Minister of Public Service and Administration Richard Baloyi or Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, to name but a few.

ANC insiders said Nyanda was moving closer to the rival political axis that includes Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and newly appointed ministers Fikile Mbalula (sports) and Paul Mashatile (arts and culture), and therefore could not be fully trusted. Of course the corruption allegations that keep surfacing about Nyanda give Zuma the moral high ground to get rid of the former South African National Defence Force general.

Keep your enemies close
It came as no surprise that Mbalula and Mashatile were given a seat at the main table—Zuma knows how useful it can be to keep your enemies close.

Expectations that Sexwale and his Cabinet rival, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu, would be shifted were also dashed, but that should be no surprise for those who know their way around a chess board. You keep the most influential pieces stable and preoccupied, even if you think they may present a danger later on. Defence and housing made sure that Sisulu and Sexwale are not idle, and they have limited time to focus on political lobbying for 2012.

The fact that the security cluster remains intact is another example of the principle of ensuring key players stay put. Like Mbeki, Zuma values the support from his security ministers above all, and even State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele’s wife, who stands accused of drug dealing, and the controversial Protection of Information Bill did not cost the minister his job. Just like corruption allegations against former police national commissioner Jackie Selebi did little to harm his job security while his political master could pull the strings.

Deputy ministers
In this game Zuma cheated slightly by bringing in a slew of deputy ministers who can act as extra pawns to protect him. By including relatively unknown parliamentarians in the mix, Zuma has automatically created new support bases for himself by handing out these positions of status.

A deputy ministership is the vaguest job in government. Because they don’t have defined roles, deputy ministers simply do whatever their ministers deem them to be capable of. In some cases they can keep an eye on the minister, but in others Zuma will hope they can bring up the rear, as would happen with former presidential adviser Ayanda Dlodlo becoming the deputy minister for public service and administration.

Although Dlodlo has little experience in government, her military background might give the department some firepower when the bargaining season starts again this month. Baloyi’s sweet and kind demeanour did the government few favours during the recent wage negotiations with the public-service unions.

The most suspicious exit is that of Geoff Doidge, who was known to play by the rules in his Public Works portfolio. Is his departure linked to his decision to investigate the controversial office-block tender that police commissioner Bheki Cele signed off on?

The appointment of Marius Fransman completes the clean-out of supporters of former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool in that province.

Fransman was appointed as Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation in the place of Sue van der Merwe, who has served in that position since the Mbeki years. Poor Van der Merwe only found out after the announcement that her political currency had run out.

Appointing former South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) general secretary Thulas Nxesi to deputy minister of rural development may be a move to appease the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) after the axing of Mayende-Sibiya. Giving the other Cosatu appointment—Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel—a deputy minister in the form of former deputy public enterprises minister Enoch Godongwana, will probably erase that gesture of goodwill. The reshuffle could have provided Zuma with ample opportunity to mend his relationship with Cosatu; his decision not to use this gap shows that he does not deem this part of his kingmaking team as that essential anymore.

With the additional pawns on his chess board and consolidation of his powerful players by reaffirming his confidence in them, Zuma may just have bought himself more time at the Union Buildings—perhaps even beyond 2012.

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