Just over three months ago President Jacob Zuma was sailing towards the African National Congress leadership conference with only clear water to be spied ahead of him. Now the good ship Msholozi is battered, yawing from side to side, and its skipper panicked.
What happened? After all, a home province membership drive promised KwaZulu-Natal a solid edge in delegates at Mangaung. Zuma’s bête-noire, Youth League president Julius Malema, and his cohorts had been neutralised. The only one with a chance of unseating Zuma, Deputy-President Kgalema Motlanthe, had failed to break cover to join the Anyone But Zuma forces.
Marikana is what happened. The police killing of 34 striking miners is a seminal event and will dog Zuma long into the future, much as the presidency of Thabo Mbeki became defined by HIV/Aids denialism.
At the moment when South Africa most needed leadership, Zuma’s failings on that score were laid painfully bare. He seemed lost, indecisive, almost fearful.
Zuma failed even to attend the official Marikana memorial service. He was ‘tending to other issues’ and the occasion was promptly hijacked by Malema, turning into an anti-Zuma free-for-all from which his Cabinet colleagues were sent scurrying for their lives.
From the outset of his presidency, Zuma has taken a drubbing for his supposed lack of leadership. It’s not entirely fair. What the ANC wanted after Mbeki’s authoritarianism was a more collaborative style, which Zuma has delivered, albeit it to the degree that he often stands accused of having no genuine personal beliefs, agreeing most with those whom he spoke to last.
But one shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of leading the ANC. Behind its apparently unassailable popular support and huge parliamentary majority is a constantly shifting alliance of disparate, competing groups. Sometimes they are more at one another’s throats, than that of the political opposition.
This is why South Africa, perhaps uniquely among the world’s democracies, doesn’t insist on Cabinet solidarity, the convention that policy differences between ministers are resolved in Cabinet and that if a minister won’t stand behind the final Cabinet position, he or she resigns.
In SA, as the dispute over the Traditional Courts Bill most recently highlighted, ANC ministers can and do with impunity publicly contradict and lobby against Cabinet decisions. Although the consequent process of endless reconciliation makes for halting and ineffective government, it is essential for the ANC, so as to minimise the risks of splits.
Zuma understands this and has proved adept at glossing over internal differences, so by this measure arguably has been an excellent leader of the ANC, if not the country. He has delivered exactly what the Polokwane rebels wanted from the one to replace Mbeki, a man who rode roughshod over any whisper of dissent.
It’s dawning though on some of the rebels that this is not enough. When organisations or nations are reeling under the body blows of capricious fortune, they demand also inspiration from their leaders. Collaboration morphed into simple appeasement is not inspirational.
Nor do Zuma’s personal circumstances inspire: the stench of corruption charges avoided but not refuted; the blurring of the personal and public purse; and the president’s ever expanding but secret obligations to millionaire benefactors.
Through judicious leaks to the media – the damaging spy tapes and Nkandla home renovations – Zuma’s enemies within the ANC have reinforced the impression of many South Africans that the driving forces of his presidency have been to stay out of jail and to prepare the ground for a comfortable retirement. Meanwhile, Zuma’s critics are being bullied and the only solution to the unremitting flood of bad news is a proposal for legislation to ‘protect the dignity’ of the president.
While he will almost certainly carry the day at Mangaung, Zuma will remain vulnerable to eventual shipwreck unless his leadership improves. What’s needed is more Captain Courageous, less of the clownish Captain Pugwash.