‘We’re told the past doesn’t count’

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Copy of si zuma cabinet GCIS President Jacob Zuma congratulates Minister of Sports Fikile Mbalula while Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng looks on. Photo: GCIS

President Zuma shows a substantial strategic dose of collective amnesia, writes Susan Booysen.

 

Attention, South Africa! The ANC’s new political order has captured government. South Africans are being commandeered to embrace the post-election political world as admirable and really different.

There are ways and means to let the make-believe of a tabula rasa, a page turned to a new “political dawn”, take hold.

Cabinet appointments, restructuring of the executive, and self-positioning on “radical” policy are central to these manoeuvres.

Competent senior figures in government and the ANC are indeed continuously hard at work to build a new South Africa. Perhaps their work could still bestow a legacy of note on President Jacob Zuma’s second term. But no one is taking risks. A project of strategy and tactics is unfolding to shore up lost ANC stature. Four tricks of the trade are revealing themselves:

n A veil is being pulled over the first Zuma term: there are no explanations on why Zuma had so little confidence in his previous cabinet appointments that only five ministers survived in their exact positions from 2009 to this year, and only 13 out of 34 remain in their immediate pre-Sunday May 25, positions.

n Citizens are asked to erase pre-election political memory: forget about Nkandla, except that underling officials are being charged, a la Guptagate.

n Create obfuscation: the multiple changes to the executive craft evidence of sweeping change; and re-deliver previous policy announcements as “new as of today” (and hope citizens have short memories).

n Bargain that strategic changes to the security and communication legs of government will cruise below radar: whether it is the poorly conceptualised “communications department”, a relative junior in state security, or a senior intelligence appointment to telecommunications, hope for subterfuge. Let public opinion believe you have responded to their concerns. Let them see how you have “weakened the security cluster”.

In short, the ANC message is that new figureheads are heading up a newly proclaimed and radical policy regime. It is the time of the blank slate, the invention of a new beginning. Wake up to this new world, and forget about April 2009 to now!

We are told that the past does not account for new ministerial postings. ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told us so in relation to Paul Mashatile’s axing. (Did she not hear her boss Gwede Mantashe’s earlier remark that performance evaluations would inform the new placements?)

The veil over the past, with an added dosage of obfuscation, help explain why Zuma announced at his inauguration that we are entering “the first day of the second phase of the transition from apartheid”.

It has been a long day.

The ANC announced this hazy step two years ago, with consensus and after soul-searching (succession related) debate at its policy conference. This is a subtle chess game, now executed by Gedleyihlekisa.

Many of the cabinet appointments similarly testify to a scheme to reinterpret the past five years and construct a future in which local election 2016 will be an ANC breeze in the park.

The almost wall-to-wall cabinet overhaul is so people will see a sea change away from the last term.

Now new ministers are pouncing to make their mark, for example to end the platinum belt strike.

No questions asked on why the predecessor did not attempt the task (she is said to have carried too much “baggage”, which she will now carry to a ministry within the Presidency), or why someone with the requisite record could not assume the responsibility. We shall not hear whether it is a question about government guilt for the (now non-existing, of course, given the time of amnesia) Marikana massacre, the root of much of the discontent.

The new small business development ministry is the toast of the town. Meanwhile, is anyone going to be accountable and tell voters why the Department of Trade and Industry had not (so it is implied) done enough when the function was part of its brief? Or, is this a coach hooked on to the executive gravy train, as thanks to the otherwise well-respected incumbent for swallowing the Mugabe insults?

The odds are we shall also never hear from the horse’s mouth why a phalanx of retained cabinet members was deemed not good enough to be kept in their preceding positions.

This is part of the game of a president who knows his power to reshuffle will help forestall becoming a “lame duck” second termer. At this stage there is no evidence of a looming palace revolt and he will nurture the trump card to reshuffle until he is ready to end his second term, whether for reasons of health or political expedience.

He also listened to many of the ANC leagues’, alliances’ and regional structures’ wishes, thereby taking out insurance against being held solely responsible for continuous failures by the not-very-new team.

The new order Presidency of South Africa has largely escaped attention. At the president’s side is de facto deputy president Jeff Radebe, “also deputy president” Cyril Ramaphosa, Luthuli House’s “prime minister” Gwede Mantashe (given the Zuma ANC’s full-circle fusion between state and party) and omnipresent Zuma aide, Jessie Duarte. Of course, it was pure coincidence that the Jeff and Jessie show MC-ed the amphitheatre inauguration.

Equally below radar is the Presidency’s likely seamless control over the juniorised security cluster. Few things do not qualify for scrutiny under the rubric of monitoring and evaluation, if taken seriously.

The cluster is alive and well, albeit now under central control.

Along with the president’s well-designed amnesia about the start of the “second phase of the transition from apartheid” came his recasting of the National Development Plan (NDP) as radical. Perhaps, yes, in the sense of far-reaching – but in terms of ideological thrust it is a mixed bag at best, a blend of liberalism and social democracy.

It was convenient double-speak, possibly to upstage the Economic Freedom Fighters’ use of radical speak.

Or, was Zuma, the self-proclaimed “radical disciple of economic liberation” exploiting the perceptions of an audience of less shrewd supporters who are oblivious to policy history and recycled documents?

The president promised to put the economy on an inclusive growth path. Instead, within days of these words there was the news of a contracting economy, of growth prospects for the national economy being halved compared with what the budget had anticipated.

Yet there will be silence on the flatulent cabinet and presidents that devour about R1 billion in salaries and perks annually.

The South African economy is hovering just above the basket case line, but the new order dare not stop and economise on trough politics.

These are the strategic moves of a president who is over-interpreting the ANC’s recent electoral mandate as personal vindication. Recall the ANC celebration event after the election where Zuma, on the winds of an oft-repeated Shakespearian quote, told the opposition and media (same thing for him) to get lost.

A few days earlier he had defiantly defended his Nkandla security upgrades.

This is the president who has lost the ANC 8 percentage points of national support over two elections.

This is the time of the ANC really needing that ministry of communications. This is the weak heart of South Africa’s democracy.

 

*Booysen is professor at Wits University’s School of Governance and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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