William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The strange case of the disappearing president

President Jacob Zuma is South Africa’s invisible man. The person elected to lead the nation is slowly fading away like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, until eventually, one assumes, only the grin will remain.

Like many a politician before him who found the heat in the local kitchen too much to endure, Zuma has become a gadabout, disappearing at the flash of an airline ticket to more welcoming foreign destinations: almost a week in the Russian president’s cosy lair, or by chartered Boeing to the United Nations in New York. Anywhere that he does not have to rub elbows with increasingly cheesed off South Africans.

This past weekend Zuma didn’t show up to deliver the keynote opening address at the African National Congress’ Gauteng congress, or two days later the closing speech. The Star quoted unnamed “highly placed sources” as saying Zuma had stayed away because he “feared being booed” by disenchanted delegates and because he was peeved over Gauteng’s stinging jettisoning of the national ANC’s policy on e-tolls.

Already Zuma doesn’t want to appear in the National Assembly because of the raucous questions as to when he will “pay back the money” for Nkandla. If Zuma has now become such a sensitive flower that he wilts when booed, it doesn’t augur well for the remaining four-and-a half years of his presidential term of office, as large swathes of the country become no-go areas.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who stood in for Zuma with the keynote speech, said that the president was all about the country, engaged on “ANC business”. It’s difficult to imagine what party business would be more pressing for the president than to kiss-and-make-nice with comrades from the province that is the nation’s economic powerhouse. A province, moreover, where the ANC could lose control of two critical metros – those encompassing Johannesburg and Pretoria – in the 2016 local government elections.

While Zuma might be engaged on ANC business, he is clearly not devoting overly much attention to the nation’s business. Political analyst Richard Calland last year opined that Zuma “doesn’t read Cabinet briefs, he doesn’t read stuff that is the meat and drink of modern, sophisticated government”.

Calland, who enraged the presidency with his comments, was only partly correct about the president’s sad affliction. Even more of a problem than the fact that he won’t read, is that the president won’t write much either.

Unsigned Bills languish on his desk, admittedly sometimes to the relief of advocacy groups. The media secrecy legislation, the euphemistically and inaccurately titled Protection of Information Bill, was first introduced in 2010 and finally amended in April last year. It is still unsigned.

So, too, the Private Security Industry Regulation Bill of 2012, the Public Administration Management Bill of 2013, and the National Environment Management Bill of 2013.

Public protector Thuli Madonsela had to wait for months for responses to her questions of the president during the investigation into the building of the president’s extravagant private residence at Nkandla. Some of her inquiries he never replied to.

Madonsela’s report, highlighting R246 million in questionable expenditure, was finally released in March this year. Zuma took four months to respond fully, instead of the 14 days that are statutorily granted.

Another symptom of his disengagement is that important posts go unfilled. Despite the importance of the job, it took weeks to announce the replacement as Reserve Bank governor. SA Revenue Service limped along for a year under an acting head, as did Eskom.

Procrastination and passivity are the defining characteristics of the Zuma presidency. And while most of Zuma’s ducking and diving has to do with evading responsibility for Nkandla and staying out of jail, the upshot of it all is that the president looks increasingly beleaguered and vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the economy is in dire straits, with the currency melting like ice cream on a summer day and the fiscus as bare Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Power and, more recently, water supplies are erratic. Only ANC hot air remains in bountiful supply.

Most critically for the ANC, Zuma’s value as a meal ticket is evaporating by the day. Thousands of ANC councillors must be dreading going into the local elections in just 18 months’ time, with the scent of Zuma’s unpopular reputation wrinkling the noses of the voters.

It might just be that we are reaching the stage that Zuma will pull the Cheshire Cat exit on some faintly plausible grounds, such as ill-health. After all, always better a voluntary and dignified fade on negotiated terms than the humiliation of a “recall” attempt, however unlikely to succeed.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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