An embattled President - how long can he hold on?

25th February 2010 By: Denis Worrall

It was Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson who first said that "a week is a long time in politics". What he meant is that politics is full of the unexpected and a lot can happen in a week affecting the fortunes of individual politicians and even parties.

How much more in two weeks! Just look at what has happened in South Africa.

1. President Jacob Zuma is fast losing support within the African National Congress; some describe him as a lame-duck and there are murmurings that he should go now - never mind a second term or even finishing his first.

2. Differences between the labour confederation COSATU and the ANC over policy and personalities look to be almost unbridgeable. If the division can be bridged the logical person to do this is Jacob Zuma but right now he is too discredited.

3. Aside from strong differences over critical matters like macro economic policy, ways of creating a more competitive modern economy, what the most effective "growth path" for South Africa is, and who and how economic policy should be determined, an issue which may now be legitimately propagated (as opposed to simply aired) is nationalisation, and the nationalisation of mines in particular.

4. There are some very competent people in the South African cabinet who, if they don't all adopt identical opinions on these issues, at least understand the implications and know how to debate them intelligently. President Zuma's failure, since the beginning of his presidency to take positions on these important matters, has led to the present policy confusion and chaos. As a Mail and Guardian columnist put it: "If President Zuma can't provide the clarity of political vision on a range of critical issues - the energy mix and the use of macroeconomic levers to protect jobs to name but two - then his ministers will be like flotsam on the sea."

5. ANC youth leader Julius Malema's disproportionate influence and political profile result directly from President Zuma's lack of leadership. He patted Malema on the head when he should have put him in his place. The result is that when the President does get around to saying that nationalisation of mines is not government policy, Malema says it's not a matter for government to decide but "the people".


But to start at the beginning of these two or three weeks and put the above in context. South Africans are obviously very aware of the importance of 2010 to their country and also to Africa. For this reason the 2010 Parliamentary session was especially important. Adding to the sense of occasion is that 2010 is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release. The opening of Parliament was set for the 11th of February, the actual day of Madiba's release. And this was to be a special event - for the first time ever held in the evening, so as to attract a maximum audience for President Zuma's State of the nation address.

Less than a week before the much anticipated speech, the media revealed that Zuma had had a child out of wedlock - notwithstanding his present three wives and engagement to a fourth and some 20 children in terms of his traditional marriage. Spice was added to the revelation by the fact that the mother who bore his child is a divorced daughter of football supremo Irvin Khoza. Zuma initially responded by saying that it was a private affair and that he had paid the required damages to the family in terms of traditional custom. Within days, as a result of outraged public reaction and pressure from within the ANC, he publicly apologised and expressed regret.

It was therefore morally a seriously wounded President who came to Parliament on the evening of 11 February to deliver a widely publicised State of the Nation address. Media response the next day and days afterwards was universally negative. The Sunday Times, pointedly under the heading "President fails to cross the Rubicon", summarised the feeling: "Zuma's aides had told the nation this was going to be a very special occasion. The nation had every reason to look forward to Zuma rising to the occasion. The nation, which is in so many ways depressed, was looking up to the president to lift them out of the current gloom. But he failed miserably to inspire this confidence, appearing instead as a troubled man who was unable to provide a much-needed spur."

He evaded all the substantive issues that have been tearing the alliance apart and distracting government from the enormous tasks which the country faces - issues which worry all strata of national society, and which are disconcerting to our international partners and investors. This was also a marvellous opportunity for him to say something about South Africa's attitude toward Zimbabwe, where things are not going well, with Mugabe beginning to implement a new law which would force all foreign and local-owned companies to hand over at least 51% ownership to black Zimbabweans.

President Zuma, clearly, is no orator and he is dreadful when given a speech to read. But what is at stake here is much more than speech-making. Firstly, I'm not sure that President Zuma understands the implications of many of the issues facing this country; and secondly, he seems reluctant to take personal positions - which might partially explain the lack of substance in his speech last week. An illustration is the nationalisation of mines. All other considerations aside, we know this to be a profoundly important subject from the mining Indaba in Cape Town in early February. It is negatively influencing perceptions of the South Africa mining industry both locally (note Harmony's announcement last week that it would invest more off-shore) and internationally it is causing tremendous harm.

President Zuma didn't deal with this in his speech, but he briefly dealt with it when asked a question in a radio interview afterwards. His response was that the issue had to be debated by the ANC before it could become government policy and referred the interviewer to a statement by the minister responsible for mining to the effect that nationalisation was not government policy. Observed Zuma: "When the minister says there is no policy on this issue there is no policy." This is obviously a cop-out. The president clearly didn't want to express himself on the matter; and that, unfortunately, is what is aptly described as a lack of leadership - and it has characterised his presidency from the beginning.

Richard Calland, a serious analyst of South African society and politics, in a reflective piece in the Mail and Guardian described the speech as "dismal. Dismally written and dismally communicated". And Calland, who was in the chamber in a somewhat privileged position of being able to watch cabinet reactions as Zuma spoke: "The penny is dropping within the ANC hierarchy now. You could see the thought bubbles last week in the National Assembly: How did we end up with him? You hear it in the conversation of long-standing ANC members and activists. Faced with a lame duck president, some are already reaching the conclusion: Zuma should go - and go now."


Tensions between the alliance partners have persisted for some years but have increasingly come to the fore since Zuma's election as national president. Right now the tensions between COSATU and the ANC are very close to breaking point. And what precipitated this is Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's budget speech of the last week. COSATU's problems with the budget are not so much with the financial provisions as in the underlying "growth strategy" and its assumptions as set out by Gordhan in his presentation. To be frank, COSATU is not alone in questioning the Finance Minister's approach. Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies suggested a rather different growth path in his industrial proposals last week. The difference is that Davies will intelligently keep the debate within government whereas COSATU will noisily engage from outside, constantly threatening industrial action.

What is it that Gordhan said that offends COSATU so? Gordhan's speech was welcomed by Business Day and Business Report, and it is not difficult to see why. His approach to faster growth and job creation is founded on a relatively liberal policy mix: sound macro economic foundations, capable government, micro economic reform to boost competitiveness and productivity but with a sound social safety net. That's how one analyst summed it up.

Gordhan ended his speech by calling on government, the private sector and organised labour to forge a new social compact, in terms of which government would provide "the policy frameworks and socioeconomic conditions to accelerate job creation, while business should balance the pursuit of profit with social justice." Organised labour, he suggested, should look beyond its existing constituency - those with formal sector jobs - to "embrace and act on behalf of all the countries workers, both those employed and those desperate for employment".

To be specific, he suggested that to promote job creation, the regulatory environment needs to support greater competition - this includes cutting red tape and administrative burdens on small business and reviewing the scope of collective (of particular importance to COSATU) bargaining agreements". He also suggested that minimum wages need to be adjusted to establish a more competitive and inclusive labour market. He claimed that: "Job creation for young work-seekers without experience would therefore respond positively to a relaxation of protective legislation during probation."

All this is like a red rag to a bull as far as COSATU is concerned, and the reaction was immediate. Given Zuma's and Gordhan's speeches COSATU said it should never have supported Zuma who had showed that "COSATU was not harvesting the fruits of their support for him". Another union leader said that COSATU would in future take a more forthright stance against the ANC. And Jimmy Manyi of the black management forum and also director-general in the national department of labour (one of the anomalies of the new South Africa!), said the Department of Labour focused on "decent work" and anything short of that will not work. But clearly what got the labour movements' goat is Gordhan's support for special provisions to encourage the employment of the unemployed. Said COSATU: "The minister in saying workers should not enjoy the same labour standards, means that workers should be subject to different labour rights."

Interestingly, in contrast to COSATU the South African Communist Party commented through its deputy secretary Jeremy Cronin, who is also deputy transport minister, that the SACP would "give the proposals on job creation a chance. We shouldn't be protecting a small pot of workers at the cost of a much larger group."


So where are we after the three weeks? South Africa with its enormous potential as Africa's most diversified economy, faces not only tremendous challenges of employment and training and competitiveness in the world, but also what could be a crippling debate about future strategy and policies - because, for the reasons above, the country simply doesn't have the leadership our circumstances call for.

Dr Denis Worrall

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