Any positive news arising from Zuma’s second term is being eclipsed by dismal PR. Government goes on, despite it all. Next week, the new administration will pass the 100-day mark, taken from the day that the new Cabinet was announced by President Jacob Zuma on May 25. The landmark that customarily provides the excuse for a “what has the government achieved so far?” analysis piece or two will probably pass unnoticed, such has been the success of the opposition, and the Economic Freedom Fighters in particular, in dominating the news agenda.
Such, too, is the ineptitude of those who are supposed to be handling the government’s public relations. After 20 years in office, the ANC has still not learned how to deflect attention from the bad stuff and to present the good news it does have.
Maybe it’s because it continues to appoint amateur party hacks, who invariably have their own dogs in the game, to positions that should be occupied by dispassionate professional spin doctors. Or maybe it is because their chief political traffic warden, secretary general Gwede Mantashe – probably the second-most powerful man in the country and possibly even the first – is so adept at making things worse every time he opens his mouth.
Usually it is relatively easy to forgive the affable “SG”. This past week, however, he has made it all but impossible. He has made a string of statements of extraordinary foolishness, crassly traducing constitutional bodies in favour of what only he can honestly believe is short-term, partisan political gain.
Move Parliament away from Cape Town, Mantashe demanded after the stunt by EFF leader Julius Malema and company in Parliament on August 21 – move it to a province where the ANC is in power. Why? Mantashe explained: so that where the ANC is in control of the police it can more expeditiously order the suppression of the voice of the opposition.
To say this is as dangerous as it is daft. And yet, as ever in South Africa, it is never quite so black and white. This man, like his party, like his government, does good deeds as well as bad. And it’s important not to lose sight of that as madness seems to descend all around.
Listen to this story. Towards the end of July, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti appeared to announce a shift in government policy on land reform by tabling the idea of farmers being required to give up 50% of their land to their workers.
This provoked concern in many quarters. It reached the BBC, as well as troubled investor analysts in London and New York, who are fast losing confidence in South Africa. More than anything else, it unsettled an already twitchy agriculture sector.
Notably, the proposals did not accord with the National Development Plan (NDP).
The details of the policy elements – both the proposals and what is in the NDP – are less important to this story than what happened next. I am reliably informed that the National Planning Commission (NPC) – the future of which has been somewhat in doubt ever since its first chairperson, Trevor Manuel, left the government after the May elections – let its feelings about Nkwinti’s land policy gaffe be known to the NPC’s new minister, Jeff Radebe.
As I have suggested in these pages before, Radebe is like the Harvey Keitel figure in the movie Pulp Fiction. He cleans up the mess. Perhaps this is why, now that Manuel has departed the scene, Radebe holds the record as the only person who has been in every Cabinet since 1994. It is a remarkable achievement, especially for one who can hardly be said to have a scintillating public profile or a reputation for big-vision thinking.
But that is the point. Radebe is a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, though generally he does more moving than shaking – except on this occasion, it would seem. Radebe moved fast and got Mantashe to shake. Nkwinti was summoned to Luthuli House and told to get in line. Soon after that, Radebe provided “clarificatory” statements and Nkwinti met with the big farmers to assuage their frayed nerves.
People – commentators, investors, opposition parties, business leaders, editors – are persistently asking for evidence that the NDP is really being taken seriously by the government, that it really is the lodestar for government policy and action, and that there is the political will to execute it.
This story about land policy is precisely what they are looking for. And it is precisely what is needed.
Otherwise, the most important accomplishment of the first 100 days of the second Zuma administration was the announcement of the new medium-term strategic framework, which is the government’s five-year action plan.
It has received only scant attention in the media, partly because other political events continue to dominate. Unlike with previous medium-term frameworks, a lot of preparatory work had already gone into the document ahead of the elections, so it was relatively easy to finish the job.
It is also considerably more detailed than hitherto, because the intention was to establish an NDP implementation plan that could be monitored, linking its goals with the line-function ministries that must deliver on the plan. Those ministries will have to produce their own new strategic plans by next February.
This also reflects the institutional change in the presidency, particularly the merger of the NPC secretariat with the department of performance monitoring and evaluation. The department will remain; the only difference is that the P now stands for planning.
In a deliberate attempt to promote continuity, the churn in directors general is being contained this time. So, for example, Sean Phillips will remain as the department’s director general and is hopeful that the merger with the NPC will contain a significant upside: planning and monitoring are very closely linked, with the ability to monitor and evaluate intimately connected to the quality of the planning. The clearer the intended outcomes, the easier it is to monitor and evaluate progress.
Moreover, for the first time, there will be a national planning custodian within government. In the first Zuma administration, the NPC’s secretariat was not only undercapacitated but also semi-detached, despite Manuel’s presence as a minister in the presidency.
Now, Radebe will give the ministry the political heft his predecessor at the department, Collins Chabane, lacked. He will also give it the benefit of his 20 years in government. Apparently, he has already impressed more than one planning commissioner. Whereas Manuel might have allowed a meeting of the NPC to meander philosophically, Radebe is more practical.
In fact, he is now the deputy chairperson of the commission, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as the chair. The idea is that, in corporate terms, Radebe will be the chief executive and Ramaphosa the chairperson of the board, which makes sense, given their relative positions in government and the hierarchy in the presidency.
What is clear is that this axis is where the real governing will be done. It is, in effect, a two-headed prime ministership.
And so, despite everything, the government continues and the presidency, if not the president, leads. “Government can, and does, continue,” a presidency insider told me, “though this depends on the intensity of the political turbulence.”
At the moment, the turbulence is pretty bad. Now we know the answer to the big question: How would the ANC react to losing its grip on power? And it is boringly predictable: not well.
The past fortnight has revealed more than enough: a president who continues to evade answering the questions correctly put by the public protector on Nkandla, apparently believing that his tactic of clouding the picture with layer upon layer of obfuscation and procrastination will fool the citizens who elected his party to office, and who he thinks it is now acceptable to treat with contempt.
Also revealed was a parliamentary speaker who, because she is also the chairperson of the ruling party and therefore has excruciatingly impossible conflicts of interest between her two roles, cannot be trusted by the opposition parties in Parliament.
On Baleka Mbete’s watch, serious infringements of press freedom were perpetrated when the live feed from the National Assembly was peremptorily cut on August 21, and whose security officers then tried to remove the media from the press gallery when they were still busy reporting on the unfolding events.
Not to mention Mantashe’s dismal series of faux pas. His party seems determined to misconstrue the Constitution and probably, in that light, to try to tamper unlawfully with the public protector’s findings on Nkandla. Neither the ANC nor the public protector is likely to back down.
An endgame is fast approaching. Either Zuma will go or South Africa will face its first constitutional crisis of the modern, democratic era. Either way, it will be dramatic and will require cool heads and new leadership.
Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of an otherwise troubled government, good men and women continue to beaver away, hoping that reason and hard work will steer the ship through choppy waters to some calmer place beyond. Above and around them, all manner of stuff and nonsense causes the turbulence and the unnecessarily bad news to undermine their efforts. It is just so inexcusably silly and avoidable.