Jacob Zuma: Strong on affability, weak on policy

The second article in a two part series by Isaac Mogotsi on the ANC president

Whilst everybody agrees that Zuma is neither an authentic originator of policy, nor a towering thinker, nor a policy wonk, he makes up for these deficits by his undoubted and very admirable personal affability, approachability and huge popularity in certain quarters, especially in his home province of KZN.

Thus, in Zuma's case, politics often trumps policy. The best example of this is Zuma's decision to subordinate the national education scandal regarding failure to provide textbooks to learners in Limpopo, to the over-riding political calculations around his re-election prospects as the ANC leader.

He once promised to deal with underperforming Ministers, even inaugurating a new Ministry in the Presidency for Monitoring and Evaluation. But he has demonstrated a lack of interest to deal with the patently failing Basic Education Minister over the Limpopo textbooks scandal, because the Minister concerned doubles up as the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) President, an important constituency for Zuma's re-election bid in Mangaung.

Jacob Zuma sometimes mistakenly believes his people skills can allow him to sell unpopular policy initiatives that do not originate with him personally - as is so often the case - such as the so-called Second Transition document rejected at the recent ANC policy conference. Or, the Social Cohesion Summit, whose oxygen was stolen by the Marikana Massacre.

It is also why he, as Thabo Mbeki's deputy in the ANC and the State, supported GEAR, only to become a fierce critic of the policy after his sacking in 2005. Under Mbeki, Zuma was the head of the National AIDS Council, but he is not on record as publicly having opposed Mbeki's AIDS denialism at the time. But once he himself assumed the SA presidency he permitted - fortunately - the enactment of policies that directly contradicted Mbeki's AIDS denialism.

Whilst Mbeki's deputy, Zuma went along with Mbeki's controversial "quiet diplomacy" towards Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwean government. But once installed in power as president, Zuma tried a more spirited and muscular policy, at least initially, with a not very impressive set of results. Zuma's new land reform proposals, announced this week, just after the recent ANC policy conference in June this year, is another case in point.

Like all new presidential brooms Jacob Zuma's first sweeps were impressive. This became more apparent after he appointed Mac Maharaj, the veteran ANC icon, to be his presidential spokesman. (See my Pretoria News article of late last year entitled "Mac Maharaj: The power behind the Zuma presidential throne.")

The most intriguing political development in recent time is how steadfast and unflinching the SACP and COSATU's support for President Jacob Zuma remains, despite the growing body of public opinion questioning the president's suitability for high office. This support is the mainstay of Zuma's continuing dominance of the political scene in South Africa. What is clear, however, is that this SACP/COSATU allegiance to Zuma is grounded in very strong and old ideological underpinnings, which the parties in this political "love triangle" are not so comfortable airing in public, ever coy to publicise their shared and long-standing ideological affinity.

Zuma for a long time was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist and member of the SACP, heavily influenced in his early communist thinking by such SA communist titans as Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Harry Gwala, Moses Mabhida, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Mac Maharaj.

In his seminal book, Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Padraig O'Malley reveals that "Jacob Zuma was elected to the Politburo at the party [SACP]'s seventh conference in Havana, Cuba, in April 1989." (Note 5, page 602). Jacob Zuma's biographer, Jeremy Gordin, writes that Zuma "quit the Communist Party with [Thabo] Mbeki and others in 1990". (Zuma: A Biography, page.  56). Thabo Mbeki's biographer, Mark Gevisser, reveals, in his A Dream Deferred, that "Zuma did not attend the SACP's first congress in SA in 1990, after 40 years of illegal existence." (Page 472).

However at the SACP policy conference in 2000, Jacob Zuma made it clear, the biographer reveals, that he did not quit the SACP for ideological reasons, but for strategic reasons. In simple terms, Zuma revealed to the SACP policy conference of 2000 that although he quit the SACP in 1989, ideologically he remained a Communist at heart. However, for purposes of broader party political considerations, he would operate outside the SACP discipline, membership and structures.

In a word, Zuma likely became aware that his continued communist membership would not play well with his ambition to play a greater and more influential role within the ANC, on the eve of its return to legality. To this day Zuma has never renounced communism as his ideological bedrock. He thus remains a darling (some of his embittered internal ANC foes claim he is "a special project) of the SACP and COSATU within the top ANC leadership. But what became clear was that the closer to Thabo Mbeki he got after 1989, the further Zuma wanted to distance himself from the SACP. But the further away he drifted from Mbeki politically, after the ANC conference in 2002, the more Zuma moved back towards the SACP and COSATU.

Zuma's stance of selling himself as "pro-working class" has allowed the SACP and COSATU to perform a bizarre political contortion - they have absolved Jacob Zuma (Deputy Prtesident under Mbeki), Nelson Mandela (who told the SACP and COSATU that GEAR was "non-negotiable"), and Trevor Manuel (Finance Minister from 1996 to 2008, who drove the implementation of GEAR through budget allocations) of any direct and historical responsibility for GEAR, whilst allowing themselves to heap all the blame and obscenities on former president Thabo Mbeki and some of his close confidants like Tito Mboweni, Shepard Mdladlana and Alec Erwin, or the much-maligned so-called 1996 Class Project.

Terry Bell, the Business Report columnist, describes this elegantly: "In fact, since 1996 the government has consistently supported the liberal orientation of the economy, first promoted by Nelson Mandela and codified in GEAR by a cabinet headed by former president Thabo Mbeki and his then deputy Jacob Zuma. To lay the blame elsewhere for policies that the likes of COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have described as "a disaster" is to rewrite history." (Inside Labour, Business Report, 29 June 2012, page 2).

This complicit involvement of Zuma in GEAR did not prevent the SACP's national congress this July from endorsing him for a second term as ANC leader in Mangaung. As Blade Nzimande, the SACP general secretary put it at their national congress, "the SACP is indeed satisfied with the current leadership of the ANC and the manner in which it has sought to foster and deepen the unity of the alliance. So do we also note with satisfaction some important progress made by the government under the leadership of (ANC) president Jacob Zuma." (SACP endorses Gwede Mantashe, Sowetan, July 13 2012, page 4).

Maybe the ideological sin of the so-called 1996 Class Project was not GEAR after all, but its abusive, divisive and factionalist tendencies, so alleged - a far less serious ideological charge, in my book.

It is possibly his realization of how incongruous the position of the SACP and COSATU is towards GEAR and the so-called 1996 Class Project (which must include Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma and the Minister in Zuma's own Presidency, Trevor Manuel), that Jeremy Cronin, the SACP's deputy general secretary, recently tried to perform an unconvincing summersault away from GEAR as a lynchpin of the so-called 1996 Class Project.

In his article The moral decline Mbeki loftily laments, (Politicsweb, 25 October 2012), Cronin offers a new ideological anchor for the 1996 Class Project, whose singular strength and appeal is that just because of the sheer clarity and force of its theoretical and intellectual breadth and width, it becomes highly implausible to hitch-hike Jacob Zuma, so clearly wanting academically, theoretically, and intellectually, to the wagon of this new-found anchor for GEAR offered by Jeremy Cronin.

Cronin writes; "What was the strategic perspective of the Mbeki inner-circle back in the 1990s? In 1996 ANC produced a "discussion document" entitled "The State and Social Transformation." Cronin further says that "its principal author was Mbeki, the ANC deputy president of the time."

[You may want to ask as to what was the role of the then ANC national chairperson, Jacob Zuma, or of another new darling of the SACP and COSATU, the then ANC secretary general, Cyril Ramaphosa. Why is Cronin air-brushing them out of ANC decision-making of the time regarding this document entitled "The Stae and Social Transformation."? Just to take an unobstructed pot-shot at "...Mbeki, the ANC deputy president of the time...and its principal author"? Were the two mere "dwarfs" and Mbeki "the giant"? SA President Barack Obama has coined a new term "Romnesia". We seem to observe here in SA a virulent mutant of "Romnesia" called "Croninesia". And, at a substantive level, what are the views of the current Zuma ANC on "The State and Social Transformation"? Any new insights? To paraphrase Jeremy Cronin above, what is the strategic perspective of the Zuma inner-circle in 2012, the year of the ANC centenary? Zilch.]

Even more startling is the SACP and COSATU's complete lack of any consistent ideological critique of the class and political "orientation" (Terry Bell, ibid) and nature of the Jacob Zuma government, or what others now mockingly refer to as the 2007 Polokwane Pirates' Class of the Walking Wounded. That the SACP and COSATU have embedded themselves comfortably and firmly at the very centre of this power edifice, is no excuse for their failure to provide a coherent framework for ongoing ideological and political critique of the Zuma government.

The SACP and COSATU cannot pretend that their ideological and political critique of SA's post-1994 status quo is a tap to be turned on or off, depending on whether they like or dislike the incumbent ANC president at any given time. And obviously, of all our post-1994 democratic governments Zuma's requires, and would gain the most from, such a critique - way beyond  Zwelinzima Vavi's tired and Pontius Pilate-type "sitting on a timebomb" mantra.

Unfortunately, it seems that both the SACP and COSATU have issued President Jacob Zuma's government with an unconditional political blank cheque. Like the SACP national congress before it, the recent October 2012 COSATU Central Committee (CC) meeting resolved to throw its weight behind Zuma's re-election in Mangaung. And what if the SACP and COSATU's astonishing political gamble on Jacob Zuma winning a second term in Mangaung fails spectacularly? Will there be another ANC breakaway? This time by what former president Thabo Mbeki once characterised as "ultra leftists? COPE 2?

What is clear for all to see though is that Jacob Zuma no more represents, politically, "an unstoppable Tsunami", to quote Vavi. Far from it.

For Sibusiso Ngwala, Zuma is merely "Cyclone Zuma", whilst for Phylicia Oppelt, he is just "a directionless whirlpool." (Sunday Times SA, 11 March 2012). For me, President Jacob Zuma and the sycophants and "yes-men" around him egging him on to go for broke for a second term, sound increasingly like a sustained, long, whizzing and painful night cough.

In my Politicsweb article of earlier this year entitled On United Russia and the ANC's succession battles: A Comparative Study, I asked the question as to why President Jacob Zuma seeks a second term in office: Is it just because of his uncontrollable lust for presidential power, so typical amongst African heads of state, irrespective of the harm and damage they cause?

Unlike the President's senior foreign policy advisor, Lindiwe Zulu (ibid), I really do not believe that Jacob Zuma has "stabilized himself and the environment around him" sufficiently to allow him to focus away from his "baggage" and his "[corruption court] case" and exclusively on his presidential leadership duties and responsibilities "on the table", for which he was elected in the first place.

Neither do I really believe that "doubts" about his presidential leadership are behind him. Not by a long stretch of imagination. What I do actually see now, ominously, are gathering dark legal clouds as the "[corruption court] case" Round 2, threatens to burst out as a massive tropical storm of legal, and possibly parliamentary, troubles.I therefore do not see how a second term will, conceivably, be any better than the first.

I however remain committed to the same proposal I made last year in an article in the Pretoria News. For the sake of ANC unity and cohesion, Zuma should not contest the ANC presidency in Mangaung. What is more, the prospect of his defeat, in the event Kgalema Motlanthe decides to contest the ANC presidency, has grown substantially since then.

I further suggested in the same piece that President Zuma be retained and be guaranteed a full five years second term as SA State President. As I concluded my article, "he (Zuma)  gets my unconditional vote for that."

This is the second in a two part series of articles. The first can be read here.

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA).

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