/ 5 November 2010

President of realpolitik

President Jacob Zuma acted in the kind of dramatically decisive way we do not usually associate with him.

His Cabinet reshuffle offered what the opposition and the media asked our past presidents for: he got rid of ministers who, he wanted us to understand, were not performing.

That is something Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki never did (when Mbeki dropped Pallo Jordan and Derek Hanekom from his Cabinet, he did it only when reforming his government after an election).

But the closest Zuma got to actually saying that the ministers he sacked weren’t performing was: “We reiterate that we need a national executive and public service that knows where our people live, who fully understand the needs of our people and what we are trying to do.”

Forget about those diplomatic evasions. Zuma acted in a manner that could create new enemies, but which was mostly calculated to manage old ones and win friends.

Zuma’s leadership
The last time the president came close to showing such clear leadership was when he took on Julius Malema and his youth league cohorts at the ANC’s September National General Council and warned them that he would not hesitate to act against their indiscipline. He won some plaudits for that.

Can we learn from these two rare moments what it takes for our president to stop pussyfooting around?

Government communicators would argue that he acts when he sees that service delivery is being compromised. It is an answer that calls for more questions.

How do we define the parameters of delivery success and failure? Which services matter more to him than others? It is fair to ask whether education (higher and basic), local government and public service administration represent areas of outstanding delivery.

What has improved in local government, you may ask? Why are we keeping Sicelo Shiceka?

In fact, local government service delivery continues to deteriorate while corruption has become endemic.

Local government elections
At this rate, support for the ruling party is likely to drop in local government elections next year. But because of the incredibly weak state of our opposition parties, the ANC is unlikely to surrender actual control of municipalities, except for some in the Western Cape.

Why has Zuma kept Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi, who blundered his way through sensitive salary negotiations with public sector unions?

Why is the former water and environmental affairs minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, more deserving of the axe, than for example, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele?

What puts Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile ahead of other deputy ministers to deserve promotion to minister? Ditto Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini?

The former sports and recreation minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, slept at his post for two terms and had to go.

Siphiwe Nyanda
The former communications minister, Siphiwe Nyanda, provided poor leadership in his department and the state bodies under his control. In his case, however, poor performance conveniently reinforced the political imperative behind his departure: he was simply too closely associated with people agitating against Zuma’s continued leadership of the ANC.

Nyanda’s ouster represents the one truly risky move in the reshuffle. The general’s strong intelligence and background in defence and politics leave him well equipped for a fight, and I suspect he is a man the spooks will watch closely in the run-up to the ANC’s 2012 conference.

The axing of Nyanda’s Cabinet adversary, former public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan, is a much safer move. Exactly a year ago, I wrote that the ANC must fire the minister or else she must resign: “Not because she is incompetent, but because she has lost the respect and confidence of many of her colleagues in government and in the ANC. She is clearly bereft of political clout and no longer in a position to enforce her own decisions.”

Given Zuma’s refusal to provide any reasons for the reshuffle and the half-hearted explanations coming from those associated with him, we have to make sense of what is before us. And it is the ministers and the departments which are at the heart of service delivery to the majority poor: health, education, crime and local government that have been left untouched.

In short the president believes that he has to speed up service delivery, but that the departments that look after the ANC’s top five priorities should not be tinkered with. Does that make sense?

Friend or foe
The security cluster, which includes ministers who are loyal friends of the president, is also unaffected.

The choice of deputy ministers to be promoted also tells a tale. Take Dlamini, who headed Zuma’s office before he was appointed president; Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who used to be close to Mbeki but has moved steadily closer to Zuma and is critical of the current youth league leaders.

Mashatile, who leads a province that has already discussed the possibility of putting forward a name other than Zuma for ANC presidency in 2012, is better kept busy inside rather than outside. And the same applies to Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula.

Not so long ago former president Thabo Mbeki was accused of “packing” the Cabinet with his supporters.

I am afraid history is repeating itself. The answer to the question, “When does the president act?” should be obvious. Like all other politicians, when he believes his power and security of tenure are at risk.