William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

It’s do nothing days in Zuma’s la-la land

South Africa’s ‘do nothing’ season, officially known as the festive break, is in effect a month-long shutdown that traditionally runs from December 16 to mid-January. The bad economic news is that this time around, it’s going to run for several months longer, at least up to the general election.

With the December 5 death of Nelson Mandela, the end-of-year closing down has been longer than ever before. The death of the revered former president transfixed the nation with grief and, just coincidentally, provided a handy opportunity for hundreds of thousands of employees, both blue and white collar, to launch their productivity go-slow a full 10 days early.

Economists are always quick to point out the cost of such a protracted manufacturing lacuna, during which only the retail and tourism related sectors flourish. Certainly, it is odd that a country which economically lags behind many of its sub-Saharan counterparts and desperately needs to stimulate employment, encourages such protracted indolence.

The real problem, however, is not the ‘do nothing’ Christmas/New Year season from which we are slowly emerging. It’s the ‘do nothing’ year that lies ahead, while the already sluggish administration of President Jacob Zuma tries desperately not to offend any of the ANC’s critical voter support bases ahead of the general election, of which the date is still to be announced.

Given the broad church that makes up the ANC, this is an almost impossible task, best accomplished by avoiding doing anything. Fortunately for Zuma, inertia has long been his watchword: he did bugger-all as deputy president except to feather his nest and as the Nkandla scandal has shown, featherbedding remains his preoccupation.

It is not only Zuma’s natural inclination to avoid a decision unless he absolutely has to, which lies behind the prevailing national torpor. It’s also one of the insidious effects of the ANC’s commitment to cadre deployment.

One rationale for such deployment was social engineering: to create as quickly as possible a managerial class that was demographically representative. Another was that deployment supposedly would sideline apartheid era senior bureaucrats who were in a position to stymie the new government’s non-racial, distributive policies. The glorious post-liberation era could only be led, it was believed, by ANC revolutionaries with fire in their bellies and the Freedom Charter inscribed on their hearts.

The reality has been quite different, because of the skills shortage, it has mostly ensured – whether it is as municipal manager in a small Free State dorp council or the head of a gigantic parastatal – that those with the ability to do the job were elbowed aside by incompetents whose only qualifications were race, sometimes gender, and most importantly, an ANC membership card.

The Zuma presidency has aggravated these negative effects of cadre deployment because the pool from which the cadres are drawn is now even smaller. Following Zuma’s role in engineering the ignominious exit of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, and in an increasingly riven ANC, the important appointments can be only of Zuma loyalists; preferably loyalists who share his Zulu ethnic background.

That Zuma’s paramount impulse is to keep his back protected by trusted clansmen is not surprising. The usurper is often afterwards obsessed with the possibility of being usurped in turn. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, English literature’s great betrayer, puts it succinctly when he laments ‘bloody instructions, which, being taught, return, to plague the inventor…’

Zuma, of course, is no Macbeth, in imminent danger of being vanquished. Nor is South Africa equivalent to King Duncan’s ancient Scotland, a land with the natural order inverted by ambition and treachery.

It is nevertheless becoming something of a political la-la land, where executive vigour has been overcome by presidential lassitude and passivity. A Never Never Land where the business of government, which demands at times that national leaders do what they know is right even if it is unpopular, is stymied by political caution at the highest level and deployed ineptness at every other.

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