/ 8 November 2012

Events fail to stir a teflon Zuma

The growing list of President Jacob Zuma's wrongs in office could paradoxically work in his favour
The growing list of President Jacob Zuma's wrongs in office could paradoxically work in his favour

'Events, dear boy, events" is one of ­Harold Macmillan's most famous bon mots and one that sprang to mind again last week, as Hurricane Sandy buffeted the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney.

All things considered, Jacob Zuma's presidential campaign ought to be facing its own political perfect storm.

Yet he breezes merrily along, apparently unconcerned and largely untouched by the extraordinarily lengthy laundry list of scandal, incompetence and cowardly contempt for the rights of ordinary South Africans that attaches itself to his presidency.

Consider just a recent sample of some of the choicest items of the list, in no particular order: the ­gerrymandering of ANC branch numbers to secure victory at Mangaung; the cynical use of the law to filibuster a number of legal suits, most of them brought by him to intimidate rather than in pursuit of justice – as one senior high court judge drily observed to me the other day: "Zuma uses the law like a veteran New York criminal attorney"; his contribution to the failure to comply with the court order relating to the tapes of the telephone conversations that lie at the heart of the highly dubious dropping of corruption charges against him in March 2009 – South Africa's very own Watergate; the malice aforethought of a police force that appears willing to murder citizens in pursuit of the president's political agenda, or is at the very least reckless in the exercise of its public-order duties, a sorry tale that is unfolding painfully in front of the Farlam commission; and the failure to offer leadership in the wake of August 16 and the seven-week hiatus in which South Africa's global reputation plummeted, doing unnecessary additional harm to its economic prospects.

Where was the president during that period? Presumably, he was attending to his personal political needs within the ANC. Zuma learned from Thabo Mbeki's demise: whereas his predecessor devoted so much time to leading the government that he neglected the ANC, Zuma has done the opposite.

One could go on. These are just six sample charges from a much longer indictment. I have not even mentioned South African Airways, let alone Nkandla.

What does it say about South Africa's democracy that Zuma can survive such a buffeting? In most countries, a president with such a record would have been brought down by his or her own party, never mind the public.

A man with as thick a skin as Zuma and such a heightened sense of self-preservation just forges on shamelessly, using his power to feather his nest and assure the future wealth of himself and his family.

There is simply too much news, too many events, dear boy, which in Zuma's case works to his advantage. We are in danger of succumbing to what commentator Pierre de Vos neatly calls "outrage fatigue".

This brings us to Cyril Ramaphosa. His Lonmin directorship notwithstanding, Ramaphosa appears to be on the verge of some kind of political comeback.

Clearly, his resolute handling of the Malema disciplinary appeal – as chair of the final ANC appellate body – won him brownie points aplenty in the eyes of Zuma as well as the broader ANC traditional establishment, which has been pining, it must be said, for his return for many a year. Now it is not just the chattering classes who crave his return to public life, but some of the Zuma-dominated ANC branches that have nominated him for deputy president.

And the attack on him at the Marikana commission shows how seriously he is now being taken – entirely disingenuously, it should be said. As a director of a major company, he was simply doing his job by seeking to communicate between the government and Lonmin.

Swath of political opinion
On a Zuma slate, Ramaphosa would put himself in prime position to be deputy president of the country after 2014 and in line for the top job in 2019. That would please a lot of people across a fairly broad swath of political opinion.

The man has intellectual sophistication and integrity. His wealth – a not indecent pursuit, given that it was Mbeki who outrageously pushed him out of public life, fearing the threat of his long-term rival – may even be an advantage. Unlike Zuma, he will be far less susceptible to corruption.

There is a good deal of speculation and wishful thinking in this scenario, but it is now a viable one. Ramaphosa is a one-nation moderate with innate social democratic instincts, secure and comfortable in his own skin.

With Trevor Manuel as his deputy – a "dream team" that was urged upon me by a moderate, "sensible left" Cabinet minister as long ago as last December – a Ramaphosa presidency would go a long way towards rebuilding lost confidence. He is one of the few leading ANC politicians around who could rebuild the 1994 social compact that has crumbled in recent months.

Whether this is what the broader ANC wants or not, it is what the country needs. Because I am told that relations between Zwelinzima Vavi and Manuel have warmed of late, for example, it may not be the politically implausible idea for the future it once was.

In the meantime, we may have to settle for half. While Cyril runs the country, à la Mbeki with Mandela, Zuma can swan around playing ceremonial president and enjoying the personal fruits of his victories.

Although it will be at our expense, it might just help to keep Zuma out of harm's way – or rather, us out of his harm's way. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but because Zuma is clearly not fit for public office yet mighty adept at holding on to power, it may not be entirely the worst investment of public resources this country has

ever made.