Saturday, May 23, 2009

President on a leash

By Ken Owen (Financial Mail)

As President Jacob Zuma settles into office, one question - rarely articulated but ominous - casts a long shadow over his prospects: how long will he last? One year? Three? Or a full term of five years?

The answer lies in the hands of the ANC bosses who marshalled 2 300 obedient cadres to behead Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane and put Zuma on the throne of the presidency. What they did once before, they can do again. And the fact that nearly two-thirds of the voters ratified their choice of Zuma makes no material difference. His term will end when the party hierarchy decides.

The events at Polokwane disclosed to us that under SA's flawed constitution, power lies not with the electorate, nor in parliament, nor even in the presidency. It lies in the labyrinthine recesses of Luthuli House where the ANC leaders plot and connive, and decide who will be "deployed" to what job, and for how long.

The process is hidden from public view, reducing the entire constitutional paraphernalia of elections, parliamentary debates and traditions, and checks and balances to marginal relevance. The public clash of ideas between government and opposition in an open forum where (if I may resort to one of the noblest phrases of parliamentary democracy) "strangers may be present" is little more than public theatre.

Parliamentarians pontificate, the opposition denounces and cajoles, the media solemnly records public statements and gathers comments, all the while hiding the brutal fact that the real debates take place in secret at Luthuli House. To discover what happens there requires not simply press freedom but something like Kremlinology, a reading of political tea leaves.

What we do know from the Mbeki example is that the presidency, supposedly the mighty executive branch of government, is but the lackey of faceless men and women in the only important centre of power at party headquarters. In the end, the party will decide from day to day, or month to month, whether President Zuma will survive, and for how long.

For the moment, the blade is sheathed. Zuma has made a good, and indeed a canny, start by soothing anxieties and balancing rival interests in his cabinet. His appointment of Pravin Gordhan to replace Trevor Manuel is perhaps the best he could have made to calm a business community that has learnt to live with old Commies if they are as competent as Gordhan.

The offer of a minor cabinet position to the Freedom Front Plus cleverly drives a wedge between whites who are ready to collaborate and those who, following Tony Leon, fight tooth and claw against the Africanisation of SA.

Abroad (since I happen to be in France this month), Zuma's accession has been greeted with relief, in some part no doubt because the West has grown weary of the continent and is content to celebrate any change that does not involve a slaughter.

Besides, it has become difficult for Europeans and Americans to jeer at Zuma when Italy's Silvio Berlusconi outdoes him in generating sexual scandal, and half the British parliament appears to have indulged in sophisticated theft from the public purse. The quashing of the Zuma prosecution does not appear much different from Tony Blair's brazen quashing of the criminal proceedings in a corruption case on the grounds of "national interest".

Other examples of American and European corruption can be multiplied almost endlessly. At a more professional level, Western civil servants and politicians know it was SA that, by dogged diplomacy, ended the appalling and under-reported Congo war which had drawn into its vortex the armies of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and other countries. Nelson Mandela and Mbeki kept going long after the great powers had thrown up their hands and walked away. The achievement is better recognised in Europe than in SA itself.

Allied to Manuel's good housekeeping, and the relatively sound management of the banking and financial systems, SA's overwhelming dominance of South-Central Africa gives Zuma quite a strong hand to play on the international stage.

Small shifts in public relations - what Americans call "atmospherics" - may well neutralise international opinion on both HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, the two major millstones around Mbeki's neck, without requiring much change of policy. Zuma, smiling like a charming Cheshire cat, is the man to do it.

Provided he behaves sensibly, the international community at least will treat him on his merits.

At home, he is for the present hardly more threatened on the political front; the election confirmed, as we all suspected, that the Democratic Alliance (DA) remains trapped in its tribal box, utterly dependent on a disaffected but dwindling and ageing white community, strongly supported now by coloured and Asian voters who are almost as alienated from African society as the whites.

The party won an important victory in the Western Cape but it did so by its usual method of cannibalising smaller and weaker opponents of the ANC.

This is a terminal process, close to its end. The mini-census two years ago showed that whites, roughly 20% of the population above the age of 60, make up less than 5% of those under 10. For white South Africans, the future has already happened: they are liquidating themselves as a community.

It was the Congress of the People (Cope), after only about 100 chaotic days of existence as a party, that pulled ANC support below two-thirds, in the process robbing the DA of official opposition status in five provinces. Given this performance, I find it difficult to understand why pundits think Cope failed. The fact is that the new born party did hurt the ANC, opening a breach in its previously solid support among black voters.

The ANC's reaction to Cope has been more realistic than the pundits'. In the DA it sees no threat and is willing to be quite benign, if only for the sake of appearances. But Cope is different and the ANC takes it seriously. ANC reaction will be worth watching. I hope my old friend Mbhazima Shilowa is as tough as I think he is.

The danger for the ANC is that Cope may become the focus for widespread disaffection with the ANC's incompetent governance, especially in the provinces where it can command attention as the leading opposition party; but the threat is long term.

In the meantime, Zuma's problems lie in all the familiar issues: unemployment and recession, a national culture of sloth and entitlement, failing infrastructure, a dysfunctional education system and a public health system that is frequently ineffective, occasionally brutal, and sometimes lethal. The police force seems to me an exception, steadily improving, but that may be an illusion - crime will remain high as long as social disparities remain extreme.

For Zuma to thread his way through this minefield, surrounded as he is by known frauds and criminals, and watched over by a secretive phalanx of (former?) Stalinists will be no easy walk.

Communism, of course, is not what it used to be, and the world is not what it used to be, and it often seems to me that the only thing our surviving communists still have in common with comrade Joe (Stalin or Slovo, take your pick) is a lust for total power and a penchant for knife-fighting in the dark. They have risen to power on the back of the ANC and now intend to "create jobs" without rewarding investors and without protecting an independent and creative middle class.

Forgive me if I laugh. The best I expect is something like the old Soviet system: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." Presumably we can depend on Gordhan and Manuel and the brains trust at treasury to see that they do not wreck the country while they pretend.

Even the ANC has begun to recognise that the problem of unemployment is not rooted in a lack of jobs but in a surfeit of people who are qualified only to become semi feudal gardeners and domestic servants in a dwindling number of white households. This is an indictment of Hendrik Verwoerd's education system, but also of the ANC's education policies of the past 15 years.

The education system cannot be repaired, not even by a host of angels, in Zuma's first term, nor in his second if he lasts so long, but its ill effects might be mitigated if a vigorous programme of apprenticeships were to supplant the dishing out of near-useless matric certificates to functional illiterates.

The pernicious consequences of educational failure and fraud seep into every aspect of SA life, from the crippled health system and dysfunctional municipalities to electricity supply and nuclear maintenance - indeed all the themes of political theatre that occupy the toothless parliament and the marginally relevant media. The chatterers, if you like.

But while the political process may be mere entertainment, or even farce, the challenges of governing this half-developed country are real, and the emotions that are aroused by every failure of governance are increasingly dangerous. Zuma is wise to focus on delivery but he had better realise that the best he can achieve is slow, gradual improvement. To raise expectations will be folly.

From the outset he must deal with a global economic system in convulsion, vanishing markets, flighty investors, and spreading recession or depression. That by itself is a vast subject but it is perhaps worth citing just one aspect which is hardly ever discussed: less-skilled workers in their tens of millions have everywhere been made obsolete by technology. Armies of desperate people fight to reach those countries where paid work is at least a possibility, or where social systems provide some support for the desperate.

Europeans, especially in Italy and Greece, have begun to close their borders to these wretched economic refugees. SA has open, uncontrollable borders and vastly greater wealth than most African countries and is wholly unprepared for the floods of refugees that have already begun to filter across its frontiers. Recent bursts of xenophobic violence sound a warning.

All this will be a rich source of material, some of it hilarious, for the political theatre, but behind the scenes where the deadly game of power resides, the frustrations accompanying failures of governance are bound to sow ideological divisions, factional disputes, and competition for influence. Luthuli House will be a snake pit.

The Zuma-Mbeki feud has given us glimpses of how the game is played, with the intelligence agencies employed to spy on rivals, with the manufacture and dissemination of false e-mails, malicious leaks and scurrilous rumour, and occasionally perhaps with low-level assassination. What we know has not been pretty, and what we don't know may be worse. At the end of the process lies regicide.

Zuma may be comforted to hear that in France his personal record receives less attention than the preparations for the soccer World Cup, perceived to be proceeding well but also with lingering concern about crime and safety. It is his chance to rebrand the country and to enhance his own status.

But after that, there are many pitfalls and an uncertain outcome. Will he last? Not even Luthuli House can say.

4 Opinion(s):

Vince R said...

A very good article that splashes the cold water of reality in the face of the feel good false dawn hype of the elections. Did everyone actually believe that the euphoria was going to last?
This quote rings so true:
"the West has grown weary of the continent and is content to celebrate any change that does not involve a slaughter"
That may still happen the day that the ANC suffers massive losses in an election and things go chimp style ala Kenya. The whites remaining there had better hope the ANC stays in power forever. As paradoxical as it sounds,
The more powerful they are, the less harm they will do.

Anonymous said...

A very well balanced article.

When a forest is stripped of it's trees and left fallow, it returns to forest (eventually). This I think is true for Africa as a whole. There is no hope for Africa as the mentality of the people will persevere and be it's legacy - once again. Africans as a whole are too gullible to question what is happening around them. They think that all will be well as long as their leader is in charge. Africa will never learn from the hard lessons it's had through the years - mainly given by black africans to their own people. SA was a shining beacon once but no more - there was so much potential and it's very hard to watch the downfall of a once powerful nation. They have reached the level of "joke" to the rest of the world - little boys trying to play adult games.

Anonymous said...

"The answer lies in the hands of the ANC bosses who marshalled 2 300 obedient cadres to behead Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane and put Zuma on the throne of the presidency."

WRONG!

The answer lies in an office block (locally referred to as The Owl)in Dallas, Texas. You'll notice the building the moment you get to Dallas, it is the tallest building and has a specific design to it. Clue: it looks similar to Canary Wharf (tallest building in London); and 320 West St. (tallest building in Durban until 1979); and the Owl Building in Cape Town (tallest since 1995)!

Joe King said...

I agree that Zuma was puth there. But who are the internal ANC masters of the puppets. Are they the tird force(sic), or are they active in parliment. can they be named?