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2014: The SAS Zuma adrift in choppy waters

The year’s close is traditionally a time for introspection. It is not only an opportunity to dwell nostalgically on what was good, but also to identify patterns that if extrapolated give plausible shape to our future.

South Africa’s first year without Nelson Mandela around has been a rudderless one. And since Madiba was absent from the bridge long before he actually died, it is obviously not because of any direct leadership on his part. Rather, than pilot he had become lodestone – the visionary who bound together not only the different racial strands in this nation, but also contained the centripetal stresses that threaten the governing African National Congress (ANC).

This is starkly obvious in the spectacles that played out in Parliament, where fuelled by the agit-prop tactics of the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) decorum was abandoned and armed police were deployed to control MPs. But the drift from reconciliation and civility is evident not only in a public discourse that at every level is increasingly poisonous.

For we’re moving beyond trading insults. On the one hand, there has been a revival of white racist belligerence that had almost disappeared after 1994, with apparently random attacks on vulnerable black citizens.

Conversely, while researchers have found no credible evidence of political motivation behind farm murders, the extreme levels of violence and torture evident in these black-on-white killings should give those advocating land seizures cause to pause. Here is a powder keg that could blow SA apart and an issue that with the exception of the Afrikaans-language press, the urban-focused media houses have largely avoided.

Compounding the sense of being wafted by the currents rather than navigating them, is the absence of visible leadership from President Jacob Zuma. Except for the occasional foreign foray, like striking a trillion dollar nuclear plant deal with Russia without consulting even his Cabinet energy experts, Zuma kept a low profile this year, especially from any engagement where he might encounter the chanted refrain to “pay back the money” for excessive state expenditure on his private Nkandla home.

Anyone, like myself, who predicted that a second-term Zuma – freed by electoral triumph of having to placate the contending parties within his fissiparous alliance – would shake off the lassitude of his first term and govern with vigour, has so far proved to be deluded.

A relatively minor but nevertheless telling illustration of Zuma’s pathological avoidance of conflict was his reluctance to act against SA Broadcasting Corporation chair Ellen Tshabalala for lying about her academic qualifications. It took almost a year and two unanimous cross-party parliamentary motions for her suspension, as well as a call from the ANC’s national executive for her to go, before Tshabalala resigned. Another president would either have immediately carried out Parliament’s instructions and fired her, or whispered unambiguously in her ear – she is claimed to be one of his mistresses – that it was time to go.

Zuma’s post-general election fragility is hard to comprehend. While much is made by his critics of the ANC’s support dropping by four percentage points, a 62% share of the vote after 20 years in power and with a spluttering economy as backdrop, is nevertheless a remarkable achievement. The EFF may be a particularly toxic thorn in Zuma flesh but it should be remembered that the EFF managed a percentage point less support than the 7% of the breakaway Congress of the People did in 2009. And while the Democratic Alliance hit 22%, this is more or less what the combined opposition got in 1994.

More significant than these election results has been the split in the ANC trade union ally. This opens up the likelihood of a competing workerist alliance on the ANC’s left flank but it also makes for a tripartite alliance more pliable to ANC/SA Communist Party control.

So here’s an opportunity for a visionary ANC president to seize the economic nettle and facilitate private sector-driven growth. That’s not happening. Instead, Zuma’s inner-circle is more obsessed on shielding the “dignity of the president” from what it sees as a hostile and partisan media.

On the upside, while government has been aimless, over the past year there has been a reassuring rallying of disparate forces to protect the Constitution. The DA and EFF have co-operated in Parliament to insist on presidential accountability; the Public Protector and the Auditor-General proved, again, to be unshakeable bulwarks against government malfeasance; and the Chief Justice, upon appointment widely dismissed as a Zuma lackey, recently called upon “academics and intellectuals” to play an “active and vigilant role” in guarding against trends in the executive that are undermining an independent judiciary.

In 2014 Zuma has been less Great Helmsman and more Inept Oarsman. Next year is possibly Captain Zuma’s last chance to chart a course that skirts potentially lethal social and economic shoals.

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