This is an opportunity for President Zuma to redeem himself. But the odds are stacked against him, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma is lucky. He gets a second bite at the presidential cherry by being in charge for another five years. This is an opportunity to redeem himself. But the odds are stacked against him.
We do not have a clear idea how popular or unpopular President Zuma is. The electoral system does not allow us to differentiate between a party and the leader it puts forward as a presidential candidate. What is clear, however, is that the objective facts about the past five years mean that Zuma has his work cut out for him.
He starts his second term facing the persistent realities of deep inequality, high unemployment, callous levels of poverty and an underperforming state. While many people’s lives improved marginally over the past five years, which in part contributed to the ANC’s huge electoral win this year, the truth is that the rate at which economic transformation is occurring remains utterly unacceptable.
This second term must focus, as promised, relentlessly on the economy: growing the economy to levels that are sustainably high, and conducive to job creation, including an unprecedented focus on entrepreneurship, creating many new captains of industry so that there can be a multiplier effect on jobs being created.
But the point about Zuma’s popularity is this. Does he have the authority – and skill – to successfully lead this focus on the economy? Is he taken seriously by stakeholders outside the state, like organised labour and big business, so that he can patch up impaired relationships between all the stakeholders that have to work together if economic transformation, let alone ”radical” economic transformation, is to happen?
I doubt it. There are two challenges facing Zuma when it comes to the small matter of cutting an authoritative figure. The first problem is that he is no technocrat. Yes, yes, political principals do not need to be technocrats, necessarily. But it helps to get the machinations of the state, and be on top of the policy detail.
Contrast – without reinventing his chequered political record – Thabo Mbeki with Zuma. One can reasonably disagree about the economic policy choices that Mbeki made during his time in office, including whether the growth achieved led to jobs and a more equitable society.
I think it’s fair to say that some of the economic challenges are structural consequences of decisions made before Zuma became president. But the point is this: Mbeki, whether you agreed or not, was on top of the economic policy debate. He took a view, owned it and ran with it. And a history of political economy in post-apartheid South Africa will in time judge the content of those choices.
Zuma has not demonstrated this kind of skill-set, be it at the technocratic level or at the level of effective oversight over those in charge of economic thinking, as their boss. So he doesn’t have a great track record on the economy, from his first term in office, which can be leveraged to project trust and confidence when engaging stakeholders.
The other problem for Zuma is that he has not role-modelled the kind of leader he needs the rest of his ministers to be. So talk of firing people who are lazy rings hollow. Not only has he not delivered on the economy in his first term, but Nkandlagate erodes his political authority because he was found wanting.
Of course we do not just care whether a president breaks the law. We want a president who knows what he ought to do, ethically, and in terms of sheer governance excellence, and gets on with doing it. And whatever the final fate of the public protector’s report on Nkandla, the president cannot escape ethical judgment.
In the best-case scenario for Zuma, he ought to have known about and halted the expenditure at his residence. He is ethically tainted.
This, in turn, makes it difficult to effectively demand from your cabinet that they perform. You are not, and have not, led upfront. Of course Zuma has constitutional authority on his side. But remember that the goal is not to fire people willy-nilly, drunk on your constitutionally endowed prerogatory power.
The aim is to get the best out of your team. And you can only get the best out of your team by role-modelling the behaviour you demand of them. As it happens, Zuma has done some very poor role-modelling during his first term as president.
The good news, of course, for Zuma that is, is that he is as brilliant a career politician as he is an ineffective head of government. And so he is back! But for our sake, as citizens, and especially the poorest of the poor, let’s hope Zuma doesn’t behave like a lame duck.
Let’s hope he makes a sincere effort to falsify the doubt many of us have about his ability to redeem himself. Don’t bet on it though.