Mike Wills has never seen a transparently less decisive political leader in over four decades of studying them.
Cape Town - “The buck stops here” was the famous sign on the Oval Office desk of US president Harry S Truman but in President Jacob Zuma’s Union Buildings office the sign would read: “The buck stops nowhere.”
I’ve never seen a transparently less decisive political leader in over four decades of studying them across the globe than Zuma who continually leaves glaring contradictions unresolved and then ignores the devastating consequences of such neglect.
At the moment just about everything significant to do with the economy falls into this space, as does e-tolling, the future of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the affordability of the National Health Insurance (NHI) and… on and on the list could go.
I don’t know whether all of this is the result of decisive indecisiveness – an art form for political survival by never making any enemies – or it’s the result of him being overwhelmed by the job, obsessed with his personal future and lacking in the intellectual ability to see the problems. Maybe it’s a frothy mixture.
Whatever the genesis, the nation is paying a serious price for the president’s default positions of fudge, silence, delay or telling all sides what they want to hear.
(He also seems astonishingly oblivious to just how compromised he is when he speaks about the fight against corruption.)
The real test of a political leader lies in the cabinet room. In the departmentalised construct of a cabinet, conflicting interests are brought to the table by different ministers who will argue their corner. There might be compromise and a referral to cluster structures for further discussion but, ultimately, someone has to make the big coherent call and then get unity around implementation.
Zuma demonstrably isn’t doing this and neither has he delegated to a hatchet man, as Nelson Mandela did with Thabo Mbeki, and then Mbeki as president did, to a degree, with the hardegat Essop Pahad.
Many assumed that Collins Chabane would play this role for Zuma when he carried the Orwellian title of minister for performance monitoring and evaluation in The Presidency for five years. But there’s no evidence that he did so.
Veteran political bruiser Jeff Radebe is now minister in the presidency (Pahad’s old title) but, so far, there’s no sign of him in action either.
Political leaders have different considerations in resolving cabinet disagreements. Some, like Margaret Thatcher and Hendrik Verwoerd, were overwhelmingly ideological, others, like Bill Clinton and PW Botha, nakedly based the call on what was best for their political survival in the party or the electorate. Many hide behind the finance minister and let fiscal policy decide, while a few operate on personal grudges – Mbeki and Gordon Brown combined those motives.
With Zuma none of this applies. He has no obvious ideology or fiscal policy, he’s not standing for re-election, his only grudge is with the NPA and the “clever people”, he’s seemingly immune to blistering media criticism and he, publicly at least, doesn’t care about deficits, qualified audits, ratings downgrades and the collapse of the mining industry.
According to the State of the Nation address in June, the National Development Programme (NDP) is meant to be the determining factor, but several key figures have disowned that document and, anyway, it is deliberately vague enough to accommodate most points of view – it’s a bit like the Bible in the sense that you can find a quote to justify anything.
One small example of the problems we face: how does the home affairs minister’s arrogant approach to laborious new entry requirements fit with the NDP’s vision of tourism being a key industry for our future?