While the signs of a failing political leadership and government in South Africa are all too evident on the surface, it has become increasingly difficult to identify and follow the thread that runs through the failures that reach all the way from local government to the very leadership at the top.
President Jacob Zuma has surely attracted the lion’s share of the blame, but this is perhaps not without good reason. When considering the failing systems of both political accountability and delivery, there is a persistent and nagging question – relating to President Zuma’s own chequered past and currently embattled leadership – that may help unlock some of the reasons why these failures are recurrent in the Zuma presidency. The question is simply;
“How has Jacob Zuma survived scandal after scandal without stepping down or being removed from office?”
Despite the generous reading of the political astuteness of the president by commentators such as Justice Malala, our president has not survived scandal after scandal by deft political or diplomatic manoeuvres, charm, or outright intimidation and assassination of opponents. He has not survived by securing the support of foreign powers who entrench his position through their influence, either overtly or through covert ‘back-room diplomacy’. He has not survived through sheer force of personality and propaganda that hails him as “the great leader”, as an irreplaceable organ of the nation state.
He is not a Silvio Berlusconi, nor is he a Nixon or Stalin. He is, by all means, a rather mild leader, one who leads by consensus for the most part, and defers to those around him on issues of policy, vision and strategy. If anything, he is more like a gentle patriarch, who oversees a large extended family of varying and differing interests where conflict and jealousy often arise. Yet he seems to float above and ride out every scandal that he is implicated in, and slips through all attempts to pin him down with relative ease. Indeed, he seems to smile through every attack that accompanies each new scandal.
Every scandal that the president is embroiled in begins with breaking news, escalates into outrage in the media, and hits government, which absorbs it like a gigantic sponge. The scandal, which begins as a raging torrent is initially stalled, and then dissipates slowly as it is dragged into the never-ending crevices of the bureaucracy of the state. It is as though each scandal loses momentum and becomes stuck, bogged down in mud, and eventually fades into the background of daily affairs, slowly sinking further into the unforgiving terrain. The scandal is never fully acknowledged by the president; he usually avoids making any comment on the scandals that he is named in. The scandals are never acknowledged as serious political threats that require immediate and urgent attention.
In contrast, his loyal government allies are usually quick to dismiss all claims of scandal and intrigue as mere attempts to undermine a black government and the legacy of the ANC. They usually bat off the criticism and place the blame at the feet of the opposition, the liberal media and those who are labelled supporters of “white privilege”. They are like a large American football team, who rally against every ‘attack’ to give their quarterback enough time and space to make a good throw. And each time the president has been given this space, he takes full advantage of it. With each new scandal he has entrenched himself further and made himself more immovable.
It is truly remarkable, because the president doesn’t really have to lift a finger. The entire system of government seems to transform itself to service the agenda of his survival whenever a new ‘threat’ arises. The president’s survival has not come about through dramatic court cases or parliamentary and public inquiries. It has come about through the endless capacity of the state bureaucracy to stymie, absorb and dissipate unwanted realities that it prefers to avoid dealing with. President Jacob Zuma has survived mainly because key organs of the state are able to raise technicalities and identify loopholes for him.
It is likely that his sycophants take on the responsibility of ‘defending the fort’ on their own accord. It is most likely that they – quite rightly – conflate his survival with theirs, as the precedent that was set at Polokwane was that abrupt leadership change would soon be followed by a purge within the ranks. Without him, where do they go? And when one questions the credentials of the current leadership, there are many cadres in positions that they are clearly ill qualified for. The main reason they are there, is because of their loyalty to the president, and the benefits they reap for that loyalty.
If the ANC wanted the president removed from office they could have made it happen a long time ago. There have certainly been more than enough reasons to recall the president from office. Thabo Mbeki, by comparison, was recalled for significantly weaker and lesser reasons than Jacob Zuma has provided the ANC with. The simple reason that they do not remove him is because once he goes, it is likely that they will follow. That is why the ANC leadership has closed ranks, and engendered a culture of blind loyalty within its structures. It is the main reason why the ANC is unable to question its own leader without fear or favour, and why nobody has been able to openly state that the “emperor has no clothes”. They all need to play along in order to ensure their own political survival.
The potential outcomes of this breakdown of accountability within the ANC are deep and far reaching for the country and South African politics. What is clear is that in the absence of the ability of the ANC to regulate its own leadership, it will become increasingly difficult to play along with the idea that a vote for the ANC is a vote for an institution with a long history and legacy that can be depended upon to counter its internal problems. It will certainly continue to lose votes, but it is conceivable that this could worsen significantly amongst urban voters, who now constitute the majority voter-ship in SA. The Zuma presidency may well be the catalyst that ultimately leads to the decline of the ANC as a major political force in South Africa. Worse, it may lead to a situation where the ANC loses all real political legitimacy and becomes a ZANU-PF styled disaster, ruling endlessly while doing enormous damage to the country as a whole.
What is clear, however, is that the ruling parties “guidebook to political survival” has been written in the Zuma presidency. And it is not just the leaders at the top who have learnt these new survival tactics. It has permeated government at all levels of leadership and decision-making from the very top to the bottom. It is now commonplace for gross violations of public office to be met with nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a lateral transfer to another department, or worse, rewarded with a promotion later down the line, after the mud sets in.
Time and time again we see those who should resign their positions dig their heels in, confident that the mud of bureaucracy will serve them, and that the far-reaching tentacles of their large, ‘majoritarian’ rule will ensure their survival. Majority rule has failed the country; it has rendered the state and government incapacitated and unaccountable, unable to regulate itself sufficiently to ensure competent governance.
The president has come to embody the compromised state of leadership and government that South Africans now endure. Time will tell what future awaits us, but what is clear is that the safeguards that secure and protect the separation of powers, especially between the state and the government, requires an entire rethink. We, as a country, state and government cannot possibly survive another Zuma-style presidency.
***Note that this article was first written and published on this blog in 2011.
***Note that this article was first written and published on this blog in 2011.