The question is whether Zuma will be, like Nero, fiddling with his friends in the cabinet while SA burns, writes Susan Booysen.
The night of the long knives is looming. It is the time for the anointment of top ANC stalwarts to President Jacob Zuma’s 2014 cabinet. The only certainty is that the president’s “appointment rules” are indeterminate. It is a strategic game, and the president rules.
The ANC’s top officials advise and propose. ANC provincial executive committees submit proposals for premierships.
The president may overrule, but will listen to those on whom he, in turn, depends. Constitutionally, it is the president’s prerogative to appoint his cabinet, including the deputy president.
In due course there may be a second deputy president, if a change in the constitution’s section 91 allows.
Months of speculation and underhanded campaigns, along with planted information about candidates and their opponents, at this stage cloud rather than illuminate the question of who will govern in the cabinet and the premierships.
The stakes are high.
Deputy minister and parliamentary committee statuses are promises of things to come.
The cabinet’s composition will reveal much about Zuma’s wishes for balance between “legacy construction” and “presidential protection” (against prosecution, or other dubious practice).
Will the president rise to the occasion and ruthlessly prune away cabinet deadwood – even ministers who are famed for loyalty and defence of presidential mal-function?
The incoming cabinet will be required to dual-task in constructing a laudable “legacy” for Zuma while protecting him from Nkandla excesses, the arms deal, Marikana, education crises, decaying trust in public institutions, ineffectual policing and fears that the security forces increasingly rule for the president.
The cabinet already comprises loyalists. Yet, some incumbents may have sinned in being less demonstrably loyal to the party patrons than their competition.
Could there be space to elevate principle over deference, determined execution of policy over ANC strategic leadership games?
The rapidly ageing top leadership needs to bring in competent and skilled candidates (and there are many), contributing new blood and fresh minds to focus on government, and, in effect, the ANC’s electoral performances of 2016 and 2019.
Some of the criteria that Zuma will apply can be fathomed by dissecting his track record.
He is not shy to reshuffle.
May 2009 brought the first Zuma cabinet. It included seven new or refocused ministries. The first major reshuffle 17 months on, in October 2010, replaced or reassigned nine ministers.
Deputy ministers tumbled.
The year 2011 brought more of the same; in 2012 Zuma rearranged the cabinet mildly in the wake of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s trek to the AU.
July 2013 saw a clean-up of sorts when Dina Pule’s red soles became high maintenance for the ANC.
Throughout this ode to “cards close to the chest in cabinet appointments” it has been clear: shadows and indictments do not guarantee being dumped, and vice versa; ministers were removed from portfolios where they excelled; candidates ripe for performance-based dismissal remained glued.
Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general and influential anointment week player, avers that on- going performance analysis will inform this week’s edicts.
However, executive members’ performance criteria are often so broad, so dependent on subjects doing their work, and so negotiable that compliance is a question of interpretation.
The greatest sin in running for cabinet is to be seen to be campaigning. The ultimate denial of campaigning is to humbly proclaim willingness to “serve wherever the ANC wishes to deploy me”.
Candidates’ recitals of liberation lineage, and loyal service to the big leader and the country, complement the non-campaigning repertoire.
Four lines of cabinet and premiership appointments are important to watch – those emerging around the security cluster and government communications; the gender factor; co-optation game; and punishment of the disloyal-to-the-president.
Number One will decide on the membership of his prized and elevated security cluster.
The “non-campaigning” cluster members personally inspected election-time protest spots and reassured South Africans of free and fair elections. They hovered around the president when he was scandal-challenged.
The likes of Jeff Radebe and Siyabonga Cwele will be hard to dislodge. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula polished all of her marbles to retain the defence portfolio.
But has she faulted on the Gupta wedding?
Nathi Mthethwa is said to be poised for demotion, given the Richard Mdluli case, Marikana and aspects of Nkandlagate. A mere year ago he was a crown prince whose loyalty dates back to 2005.
Gender and the deputy presidency stand central to the Zuma camp strategy to pre-install the post-Zuma administration.
Cyril Ramaphosa appears to be a shoo-in for deputy president, for now. But watch out if the Zumaists succeed in introducing a second deputy presidency – as a tactic to block Ramaphosa’s further ascendancy… perhaps to make way for Zweli Mkhize, or, ultimately a woman.
The “woman (second deputy) president” factor is an opportunistic trump card, also used to great effect by northern neighbour President Robert Mugabe.
Zuma promised South Africa it would “soon” have a woman president.
Abracadabra, and three names persistently pop up: either Dlamini Zuma, Naledi Pandor or Baleka Mbete could be managed to bypass the buffalo prince.
The strategists see the women card as a tool to control succession and deliver a smooth retirement to patron Zuma.
Dlamini Zuma is getting the Africa exposure and endorsements; Pandor will be legitimised through consistent government performance, they argue.
Mbete needs no help in promoting her candidacy. A parachute drop into the ANC presidency, December 2017, will wrap up the plan.
The justification for a second deputy president is enhanced capacity to hold ministers to account on their performance agreements with the president.
Is this not the president’s job? He should have plenty of time, given that he is not supervising building operations.
Apparently Zuma desires a more “ceremonial role” in these sunset years of his presidency.
Others report that ANC top shots are querying the second deputy trick.
These projected moves occur amid a reported clampdown on further expansion of the ministries, bar perhaps one for small, medium and micro enterprises.
Others in the ANC want to safeguard the “Zuma legacy project” through a new department of propaganda (presumably in a more subtle guise) and an old-guard presidential loyalist appointment.
Departments that may be on their way out include the hapless Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (the “events ministry”).
The departments of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, or water and environmental affairs, might be reconfigured.
Embattled Tina Joemat-Petterson may lose her department but gain a premiership (or was that a self-induced leak?).
The premierships are a vicious game. The required gender balance between the eight ANC-governed provinces is also a thorn in the flesh.
In the Free State, Mpumalanga, North West and KwaZulu-Natal Zuma has trusted and steadfast male candidates.
Dual centres of power again await the Eastern Cape (Nonxolo Kieviet is reported to have brought stability to the provincial government) and Gauteng (the president wants to get the Gauteng men fighting so that favourite Nomvula Mokonyane can capture the throne).
Limpopo might now get a woman.
The co-option game is another rule.
Zwelinzima Vavi has reportedly been offered a cabinet position. It would buy his silence and remove a crucial axis from a broad left-critical anti-government front.
Ebrahim Patel, 2009’s evidence of an elaborated Cosatu presence in cabinet, has probably worked his way into retention through accomplished work on infrastructure development, indispensable to the presidential legacy project.
Few incumbent cabinet members’ work unambiguously justifies retention. About two-thirds of the 34 incumbents should ideally go, along with the many of the deputies.
But, it is often exactly these persons who have ensured that they remain in the president’s good books.
The question is, will Zuma be a bit like Nero, fiddling with his friends and enemies in the cabinet while his Rome burns?