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Jacob Zuma’s presidency was always going to be problematic as it was conceived through the suppression of public institutions and manipulation of the law, says Mcebisi Ndletyana.
Nelson Mandela’s death is easily the most memorable event of the past year. This was quite a defining moment – the passing away of the founding father of the democratic Republic of South Africa. The young democracy buried its first president. But the significance of 2013 extends beyond the national tragedy.
This is the year in which the ruling party came face to face with the full consequences of its own choice, the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the country. This has undoubtedly been the most difficult pre-election year ever for the ANC.
Zuma’s presidency was always going to be troublesome for his party and the country. The trouble originates from the way in which his presidency was conceived, more than five years ago at Polokwane.
It was conceived through the suppression of public institutions and manipulation of the law.
Corruption charges were withdrawn on spurious grounds and the public prosecution authority, the Scorpions, was disbanded, paving the way for Zuma’s candidacy.
From the outset, Zuma’s presidency was thus pitted against institutions. The judiciary and the media came under concerted attack. The media earned presidential hostility for its reportage on the president’s problems and the judiciary for ruling against him in his many legal wrangles.
For promising to uphold the law, Dikgang Moseneke, the deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court, was overlooked for the top post.
The ongoing aggression against the Office of the Public Protector, therefore, is not entirely surprising. That is what we’ve come to expect of this presidency. Public institutions have become the enemy. And, there’s really nothing wrong with how our institutions function – they are doing just fine. It’s the president who has really gone out of his way to attract their attention. You can’t just spend more than R200 million turning your private residence into a mansion in a poverty-stricken village and think no one will ask questions. Nor can you authorise the landing of a private jet at a military base and hope no one notices. These things are quite difficult not to see.
So, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela hasn’t gone out of her way to cause problems for the president. The president just can’t seem to stay away from problems. He invites them. Nor does he seem remorseful after the act. Take for example his reaction to the Gupta family using a high-security military base for private use. He said he was entitled to have friends like everybody else. There was no sign of remorse at all.
We’ve been down this road before. The president has had other benefactors. Remember Shabir Shaik? That’s the guy who used to maintain the president’s lifestyle, including paying for his car to be washed.
For his largesse, Shaik apparently got business deals. He was eventually convicted. And, when Zuma became president, Shaik was paroled for what was supposedly a terminal illness. Now we hear the guy goes around beating up people at mosques and on golf courses.
The Guptas have simply become the new Shaik. They apparently take part in cabinet selection and have reserved seats on the presidential jet for foreign visits. These debacles are nothing new, nor are they entirely unexpected.
This makes 2013 arguably the most difficult year for the ANC so far. The looming elections, in about five months’ time, have just added to the difficulty. Zuma is the face of the party, and the party can’t simply explain him away. His problems are just endless – their recurrence defies human error, but points to an ingrained character flaw.
While the ANC seems stuck in a dilemma, this year saw some trade unions punting principle over a personality. This is refreshing. Principles haven’t been part of our political life for a while. Unions have not only mouthed opposition to corruption, but have also taken a stand against this scourge. This explains the tension within the labour federation, Cosatu.
Zwelinzima Vavi had launched the first salvo a few years ago when he described this government as a predatory elite state. And the cracks within Cosatu were visible in the period leading towards the ANC’s Mangaung conference. Vavi publicly expressed regret for having supported Zuma’s presidency five years earlier, and argued that workers base their support on policies, not individuals. But he couldn’t swing his colleagues towards his view. Zuma had a particularly strong supporter in Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini. Concerns over unity blocked a full-blown confrontation within the federation.
Current attempts to remove Vavi have led to rivals dispensing with any pretence at unity. Vavi’s supporters consider his removal an attempt at silencing the unions. It is a full-blown attack at the opponents of corruption, a snub at clean government. They’re fighting back, led energetically by metalworkers union Numsa. Innuendo has now made way for straight talk. “Zuma must resign,” they are demanding. To them the president has become symptomatic of the sleaze that’s eating away at our institutions.
Trade unions got back their independent voice this year. Theirs has often been a voice of conscience, protesting against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Swaziland when our government remained silent.
We’ll look back to this as the year that brought a discernible change in the relationship between workers and the president. Workers no longer believe the president is what he claims to be, a man of the people!
The booing of Zuma at Mandela’s memorial service, in front of the world, was simply a manifestation of the public disgust at the president. But Luthuli House doesn’t seem to think so, ascribing the jeering to some disgruntled elements within Gauteng. This is obfuscation, which is understandable. Seeing the jeering as a spontaneous outburst of disgust at the president imposes the responsibility to take action. You can’t just admit that your president attracts public repulsion, and still brandish his face around, urging people to vote him back for five more years.
Because they are terrified by the implications of removing Zuma, they’re pretending that the problem is non-existent. And, Zuma won’t tender his resignation willingly. His continued freedom relies on him remaining president. That’s what the presidency has meant to Zuma from the very beginning: power and public resources to stay out of prison. That’s why the police, the intelligence system and the National Prosecuting Authority are all in a mess, and the president is in and out of court opposing the court ruling to release the intelligence tapes.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the president doesn’t want us to listen to the tapes that supposedly exonerate him of wrongdoing. He has managed to do all this because of the public resources at his disposal and the power of the presidency. As a private citizen, Zuma would be vulnerable to prosecution, and that’s what he fears.
In the meantime the ANC must live with the fact that its president has become a liability. It’s like steering a ship straight towards a cliff. They can all see the cliff ahead. But rather than change course, they’re all praying that by some miracle they survive the crash. It’s incredible, a lesson in self-destruction. We’ve just travelled back in time. It’s a reincarnation of Nongqawuse – a self-inflicted catastrophe!
* Ndletyana is Head: Political Economy Faculty, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.