Puppet master ensures that he alone pulls the strings

Executive state power in the time of President Jacob Zuma is diffused, with no single and predictable structure definitively representing where all-important top government and strategic decisions are taken.

The multiple layers operate concurrently and Zuma commands; he is in many ways the spy puppet master who keeps his operatives sufficiently in the dark to ensure that he and he alone pulls the strings.

To strengthen this “structure” of power, Zuma personally directs key appointments in the important security sector, and accepts Luthuli House directives for many of the other Cabinet appointments.

The president has the power to appoint and recall a host of top political figures, including the chief justice and other senior judicial officials, all heads of public institutions, the national director of public prosecutions, the auditor general, the head of the army, the governor of the Reserve Bank, members of the independent communications authority, and many others.

Some of the appointments are on sole presidential authority, others on advice from the Judicial Services Commission, for example – but even so, the ANC’s (and hence Zuma’s) wishes largely prevail.

The heads of the powerful state-owned enterprises are mostly in their positions at the president’s behest – often close associates and confidants – and are better known for their presidential connections than for their job performance.

Zuma holds the key to the fates and fortunes of many of the most powerful names in South African politics. In cases where the president has the sole power to appoint, appointees’ durability is as strong as their last defence of or service to the president.

The heart of Zuma’s power structure lies in a posse of loyal and trusted figures. They control access, manage the presidential space, facilitate, defend and protect. They enable the president to exercise his personalised power – but this is not always a smooth, co-ordinated operation. It varies from one occasion to the next, and posse members also compete with one another generally to be the ultimate power pleasing the throne.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe pops right into the heart of presidential power. He was the core link between party and state, and assumed a powerful, de facto prime ministerial role. This role was curtailed as succession-related tensions accumulated between him and Zuma, and Jeff Radebe, in his deployment as minister in the presidency, absorbed much of the “prime ministerial” function. Radebe managed the presidency and covered when Zuma had legal and personal matters to attend to.

Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), is always there to pull thorns from the presidential flesh – from art galleries and newspapers to trade unions, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the SACP in the provinces, all because of their “disrespect of the president”.

The two “presidential women” of Lakela Kaunda in the presidency and Jessie Duarte in Luthuli House are pivots in the circle of loyalty.

The subtext in these configurations is the fusion of state and party. At executive level this differentiates the [former president Thabo] Mbeki and Zuma orders of government. Earlier chapters argued that the fusion is a major ingredient in the ANC’s maintaining itself in power in the longer term as its electoral and popular standings decline.

The fusion also helps to build Zuma’s presidential power. The party prevails over the state in general, whereas under Mbeki it was more a case of subjugation of some institutions to Mbeki’s control plans, but not in the name of the ANC.

For a long time Luthuli House briefings carried more weight, and had more of a sense of occasion of state, than those from the government executive.

As Zuma amplified his efforts to build his legacy, and simultaneously avoid the contested forum of Parliament, he escalated presidential briefings from Pretoria.

Professor Susan Booysen teaches in the school of governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. The two articles here are edited extracts from her new book, Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma (Wits University Press)

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