William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The unravelling of President Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma’s firing of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, after barely 18 months in the job, is one of those rare events that can leave even consummately slick political opponents spluttering for words.

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane’s flummoxed immediate response on Twitter was to state the blindingly obvious: “What we need now is a finance minister who will demonstrate fiscal discipline and stand up to Pres, focus on growth for jobs.” No shit, Sherlock?

Perhaps the question Maimane should have addressed was how likely South Africa is to discover such skills in David van Rooyen. Until now the only claim to fame of this obscure and biddable MP is that when he was mayor of the poverty-ridden and failed West Rand municipality of Merafong, angry residents burnt down his home and ran him out of town.

Quite an achievement, to be so loved by the people who you represent. And this despite the sterling qualifications he boasted for the mayoral job: a certificate and a diploma in municipal governance, and certificates in councillor development and municipal finance.

However, to his credit, he has since acquired an MSc finance (public policy) from the University of London, as well as a certificate in investment analysis and portfolio management from Unisa. While this may bolster his rote work on the parliamentary portfolio committee on finance, it doesn’t make up for his complete lack of policy-making credentials or executive experience at central or provincial government level.

While Van Rooyen has no national treasury experience, he appears to have one important qualification to take over from Nene. He is a former Umkhonto weSizwe soldier and as a good little soldier presumably will know how to obey orders from Number One.

Certainly, his performance thus far does not inspire confidence. When one reads the minutes of the finance portfolio committee, Van Rooyen comes across as a colourless technocrat who assiduously avoids rocking the boat, especially when dealing with such controversial issues as the collapse of South African Airways and the outrageous behaviour of its chair, Dudu Myeni.

Nene, to the relief of the markets, had proved to be more mettlesome than many had dared hope. He had refused to rubberstamp the $100 billion nuclear power station deal with Russia, personally worked out between Zuma and President Vladimir Putin.

Nene had also tried to exercise financial oversight on SAA, forbidding board chair Myeni, an alleged paramour of Zuma, from running riot and wasting further billions.

Whatever the immediate cause of Nene’s firing, the most important thing is that this is not an act of measured leadership. It comes at a moment when the country is already taking a beating on the currency markets and is teetering on the brink of a junk credit rating.

Editorials and expert assessments have been abuzz with outrage and disbelief, with condemnation of the axing of Nene, ahead of a predicted, sixth, Zuma Cabinet reshuffle, almost universal. It has been variously described as “disastrous”, “sinister”, “treasonous”, and even Zuma’s trade union allies admitted to being “shocked and disconcerted”.

As Daily Maverick phrased it in a rare editorial; “It is the act of a leader who despises those he leads, a leader who has no respect for his office, a leader who is there to serve a closed network of friends, advisors, backers and loyalists.”

Perhaps the problem with the public reaction is that everyone is looking for rational explanations. However, Zuma’s behaviour nowadays is a far cry from the ebullient, confident reasonably rational man who became president in 2009.

The SA Broadcasting Corporation’s Digital News, probably not realising that they do the man no favours, has uploaded to YouTube its live stream of Zuma speaking at a meeting of the business community, shortly after firing Nene. Cringe-making though it is to view, it’s a broadcast worth enduring for the full, excruciating 50 minutes, as a visual record of a man who appears to be unravelling psychologically.

Extraordinarily, Zuma doesn’t even mention Nene’s departure to his business audience. Nor does he bother to try to bolster confidence in Nene’s replacement.

Instead, apparently speaking extempore, he embarks on a rambling, bumbling, at times totally incoherent, explanation of the importance of Africa in the world. He drops clanger after clanger, first claiming that Africa is the biggest continent, then that it is so big that all the other continents can fit into it.

One of course cannot blame a man with such a rudimentary education as Zuma has had, for having such a dismal grasp of geography — although one would have thought that his many official overseas trips would by now have disabused him of such notions — but one must wonder how his advisers can permit such a disastrous, personally humiliating, performance.

There are two explanations that spring to mind. The first is that his inner circle is so dominated by sycophants that the president gets only affirmation, not honest advice.

The second is that he is so arrogant and disconnected from reality that he will not heed advice. The appointment of a mild, almost timid, backbencher to one of the hottest seats in government, is evidence in support of the latter.

To draw a motoring analogy, Nene was the bolt that held together the state finance vehicle’s steering mechanism. Zuma has proved to be the dolt behind the bolt.

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