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Time to have Faith in the ANC’s ‘good story’?

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, is what the mafia don advised. It’s a Machiavellian strategy that President Jacob Zuma has embraced and is taking to absurd lengths with his new Cabinet.

It is now a veritable army of ministers and deputy ministers that oversees South Africa’s government. This week’s oath taking ceremony was a marathon three-hour affair, demanding the services of four judges. And incidentally, the ceremony was so full of stutters, japes, giggles and childish ribaldry that as a civic occasion it mustered as about dignity as a kindergarten playtime.

There are now 72 people in Zuma’s billion-rand-a-year Cabinet: 35 ministers and 37 deputy ministers (good help is hard to find). Rumour has it that for meetings involving the full ministerial entourage of aides and advisers, they are looking at hiring Newlands when in Cape Town or Loftus when in Pretoria.

Truly, Africa is rising. The poor old United States has to deal with its problems deploying a mere 15 cabinet appointees. The United Kingdom limps along with 22.

Given that the ANC has 249 members in the National Assembly, an ANC parliamentarian statistically has an almost 30% chance of becoming a Cabinet minister. Not bad odds for hitting the gravy train lotto, which delivers a salary of R1.7-million for a deputy and R2.1-million for a minister, as well as R1-million vehicles, blue-light convoys, luxury housing, free air travel for self and family, and 24-hour security.

On top that, there is an almost 0% chance of being fired. Although Zuma did dump Lulu Xingwana, minister for women, children and people with disabilities, that’s a rare punishment in the ANC. During former president Thabo Mbeki’s reign a ministerial post was a job for life. Or at least until your presidential patron unexpectedly got ‘recalled’.

Mbeki didn’t fire a single minister. He admittedly did fire one deputy Health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a competent and honourable woman who resisted the prevailing zeitgeist of HIV/Aids denialism and recourse to the eye-of-newt, toe-of-frog remedies peddled by her boss, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

In fact, the only way for the nation to be rid of an incompetent during the Mbeki years was to pray for death to intervene. Divine justice, alas, is rarely obligingly swift, although the driver of the heavenly chariot did eventually come and bundle up the whisky-fumed remains of Tshabalala-Msimang, and not a moment too soon.

Zuma has always been canny in his deployment of appointees whose overriding, sometimes only, qualifications for the job are personal loyalty. That’s why there is very little chance of the Zuma recall that many commentators were predicting in the run up to the general election.

His approach draws on the Lyndon B Johnson theory of political appointments. The rough-tongued former American president memorably explained thus his surprise inclusion of a particularly disruptive and unpleasant individual into the White House inner circle: “It’s probably better to have him on the tent inside pissing out, than on the outside of the tent pissing in.”

Although Zuma’s most fervent loyalists, those in the critical security cluster – police, intelligence and justice – have been dispersed to other portfolios, this doesn’t materially weaken Zuma. If the Nkandla scandal and Marikana massacre chickens ever do manage to flutter home in the face of barrage of fire being hurled at them, the loyalists who should bear responsibility will be safely otherwise engaged.

Since Zuma spent most of his first term not actually governing the country, but manoeuvring in order to secure a second, one must hope that the steps he has taken to entrench his position will now allow him to actually pay attention to leading the nation.

It certainly could do some presidential attention. Gross domestic product dropped by 0.6% in the first quarter, the first such decline since the international financial system woes of five years ago. With the trade unionists much weakened in the tripartite alliance, this is Zuma’s opportunity to continue to talk left (‘radical economic transformation’) and walk right (the National Development Plan).

But Zuma is covering all bases. He has also created a single ministry to house the government information service, the state broadcaster, the communications sector regulator, South Africa’s international marketing agency and the media diversity agency. This new ministry of propaganda, pardon, communication, is headed by Faith Muthambathi, who has a wide streak of antipathy towards the media, which she has in the past castigated for ‘distorting’ the ANC’s ‘good story’.

It seems that all that’s necessary for the good times to roll is that we have a little Faith …

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