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The Zuma government is floundering about

For almost a year President Jacob Zuma has been preoccupied with ensuring that he gets a second term at the African National Congress’ elective conference to be held in Mangaung in December. Such single-minded determination would be admirable, had it anything to do with wanting to lead the nation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Zuma is not driven by a political vision for South Africa. His ambitions are immediate and personal. They are to insulate himself from criminal prosecution and to keep his coterie of family, friends and hangers-on at the state feeding trough for as long as possible.

So while Zuma immerses himself in the murky waters of pre-Mangaung intra-party manoeuvring – promises of patronage counterpointed by the sinister spectre of a state security apparatus inspanned to cajole or coerce as necessary those arrayed against him – the day-to-day administration of the country is adrift.

Increasingly ministers are acting as independent chiefs of their fiefdoms, rather than as part of a system of shared cabinet decision-making and responsibility. Some ministers conduct debates in public that more conventionally belong within cabinet, while others metaphorically jab fingers in the eyes of their colleagues, jockeying for advantage.

This week Lulu Xingwana, the minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, demanded that the SA Police re-establish the specialised family violence, child protection and sexual offences units that were controversially decentralised to police station level a couple of years back.

However admirable this rare acknowledgement by a minister of an error by government, Xingwana’s proposal in public of a policy change regarding a matter that is actually in the remit of a cabinet colleague, Police minister Nathi Mthethwa, is strange.

This might be on Xingwana’s part a case of that rampant political disease footinmouthitis, or a calculated political play of some kind. Whatever the reason, it indicates a lack of ministerial co-operation that would not previously have been tolerated, were the president in real control.

Even more bizarre was Xingwana’s attack on her own government’s Traditional Courts Bill, when at the weekend she called on ‘all women in the judiciary’ to rally against it.

In doing so, Xingwana, joins the ranks of an array of civil society organisations – as well as the opposition Democratic Alliance and some of the ANC controlled provinces – that reject the Bill. Never mind that Xingwana, just a fortnight ago, said approvingly on the occasion of the launch of Women’s Month, that she was ‘happy’ that Justice Minister Jeff Radebe’s department had ‘completely overhauled’ the Bill.

The Traditional Courts Bill has been hanging around the ANC like a bad smell, stretching all the way to the Mbeki years. It was first tabled in 2008 – during which period Xingwana, as it happens, was minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs and Radebe, too, was in cabinet – but it was placed on the back burner during the ousting of Mbeki by Zuma.

Under normal circumstances, a minister who spoke in such flagrant contradiction of a cabinet decision to introduce a specific policy would be fired on the spot. Zuma, however, needs at Mangaung both the support of the traditional leaders the Bill favours, as well as the likes of Xingwana, so he will fudge it.

In similarly flailing fashion is the controversial announcement this week by deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Sunday that the government was ‘discouraging’ its citizens from visiting Israel because it was ‘an occupier country oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel’.

There are a number of countries whose human rights policies should appall our government, but never before has a SA minister advocated, apparently off the top of his head, a travel boycott of a country with which it has diplomatic relations. It again smacks of a cabinet in hopeless disarray, of a party divided and of an administration paralysed by Zuma’s lack of leadership.