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South Africa drifts under an awol captain

President Jacob Zuma has been South Africa’s most detached leader ever. The result of his hands-off style and often mysterious absences is political capriciousness, organisational chaos, and an inability on the part of the state to govern effectively.

In his laissez faire administration ministers have been allowed to do much as they wish in setting policy. Ill-conceived, unworkable and probably unconstitutional legislation — such as the media legislation — has been cobbled together on ministerial whim, flogged through parliament, and then left to languish unsigned.

At times it has seemed that there are two opposing administrations running the country simultaneously, as ministers took their own idiosyncratic paths. A minister would initiate a Bill despite vociferous opposition from some cabinet colleagues. It would then be allowed to lapse part way through the legislative process. Then the new incumbent to the portfolio would revive it. Think the Traditional Courts Bill.

Much of the legislation is simply unworkable or has potentially disastrous consequences, like the new visa regulations — unique in the world — that Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has rammed through and which will be a body blow to tourism.

Some ministers appear to invent on the fly. When Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti announced startling plans to seize without compensation 50% of every farm, everyone was taken aback. And not only because such a law was unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

Organised agriculture had just prior to the announcement negotiated an entirely different redistribution mechanism with the minister. His ministerial colleagues were equally baffled, since the 50% plan had never been discussed, never mind approved, at cabinet level.

Zuma presides over an intellectual free-fall zone. The trade minister announces that he wants every economic enterprise, be it a banana seller at the side of the road or a retired teacher giving extra maths lessons, to go through a rigorous municipally controlled licensing process. The lack of local authority capacity and the potential for corruption have clearly not been given a moment’s thought.

From the Ministry of Silly Ideas there are similarly plans to make taverns legally responsible for the subsequent actions of those who had too much to drink; to stop liquor companies from sponsoring sport; and for the apartheid era’s censorship board to control the internet.

This lack of coherence works both ways. Zuma, too, has carte blanche to do as he wishes, as when he recently returned from secret meetings with the Russian president to announce a trillion dollar deal for nuclear plants.

Some of the explanation for this disastrous state of affairs is contained in Zuma’s ascendancy to the presidency. He wanted the job not so much because he had a coherent political philosophy that he wanted to implement, but in large part because he had to control the levers of power in order to stay out of jail.

From the outset, a paralysis characterised his presidency. Zuma was difficult to pin down on issues, agreeing most with the person he had spoken to last, as he tried to avoid doing anything that would offend any of the ANC constituencies upon which his power depended. Unfortunately for Zuma, one of the dictums of crisis management is that it is almost always better to do something than nothing.

When a young upstart called Julius Malema started rocking the African National Congress Youth League boat, Zuma predictably did nothing. It is as a result of this initial inertia in the face of unfolding crisis that the ANCYL is in shreds and Malema leads a vociferous, radically populist movement against the ANC.

So, too, with the internecine warfare within the ANC’s partner, the Congress of SA Trade Unions. Zuma just would not acknowledge that there was a crisis and, as consequence, Cosatu has split and the tripartite alliance faces the challenge of a radical labour movement.

But no lessons have been learnt. The president still believes that an issue deferred is an issue disarmed.

How else to explain his tortoise-like response to Justice Ian Farlam’s commission of inquiry report into the deaths of 44 people at Marikana, almost three years ago, most of them shot by police officers, many in the back?

At the time, Zuma spoke of the need to get to the bottom of what had happened as quickly as possible. The timeline was months, not years. But the findings, which Zuma has now said he will release by the end of next month, will by then have been on his desk for three months.

Unsurprisingly, this heel-dragging leads to suspicions that behind the scenes the government is desperately trying to cover-up, to find scapegoats, and to save the skin of a key figure in Zuma’s panoply of protectors, National Police Commissioner Ria Phiyega.

SA has been fortunate, so far. Although it is essentially rudderless, it has been drifting through tranquil waters. It is when it hits a hurricane that the disadvantages of an awol captain will become obvious.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.