Take charge Mr President

Frans Cronje says loose nationalisation talk is damaging Jacob Zuma's govt

By the end of 2007 it had become clear that Jacob Zuma would become South Africa's president. It appeared at the time that one of his stronger attributes as president would be his leadership ability. This was an ability he had demonstrated on a number of occasions in political spheres ranging from post-1994 KwaZulu-Natal to peace negotiations in central Africa. However with every passing week he seems to be less and less able to exercise effective leadership over his party and his government.

Mr Zuma assumed the presidency on the back of an impressive track record of political leadership. His performance for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 1990s helped to secure permanent peace in that province. More importantly, for the ANC, he weaned most of the province's voters off the IFP and effectively won the province for the ANC. With the history of political conflict in that province this was a considerable political achievement. It was probably the single most important political achievement in paving Mr Zuma's career to the presidency of both the ANC and the country.

In peace negotiations in central Africa Mr Zuma scored significant successes. These stood in strong contrast to the failed efforts of Thabo Mbeki in other parts of the continent. While Mr Zuma won the confidence of warring parties in the Great Lakes region, Mr Mbeki was sent packing in Ivory Coast after both warring parties in that country came to see him as a dishonest broker. The joke was that the only thing that rebel and government forces in Ivory Coast could agree on was that they did not want Mr Mbeki to mediate their conflict!

Let us not forget either that Mr Zuma took control of the ANC from his position in the political wilderness and on the back of both rape and corruption charges . This after Mr Mbeki had fired him as deputy president and engineered his banishment from government. This episode alone must rate as one of the greatest political comeback stories in any modern democratic society.

So while there may have been some concern expressed at Mr Zuma's integrity when he became president, there was little concern expressed at his political leadership ability. It was punted that under his leadership he would unite the fractured ANC and return policy certainty to government. It now seems that the opposite has happened.

To start with, Mr Zuma does not seem to exercise any great degree of influence over his cabinet. Almost a year into their jobs most cabinet ministers seem to have settled into an unproductive routine of planning how they intend to plan for their departments. In critical fields like health and education not much seems to be happening other than hand wringing about poor education results while the health authorities have conceived a scheme to effectively nationalize private healthcare funding. This scheme, which the government at one stage said would be introduced as a matter of urgency, seems very far from being implemented. While in this case the scheme may be a poorly thought out one it nonetheless goes to show just how ineffective the Zuma regime appears to be. 

Equally, very few people in the cabinet or the broader ruling alliance seem to pay much attention to what Mr Zuma says. You can rest assured that within a week of Mr Zuma, or one of his senior lieutenants, calling for order in the party some cabinet minister or the youth league leader will again make a statement in the media insulting a cabinet or alliance colleague. You can be as certain that that colleague will respond in an equally infantile manner and that the press will have a field week covering the latest ‘crisis in the alliance'. Take for example the ANC's recent instruction that its politicians must stop disrupting schooling by using schools as campaign platforms. No sooner had the instruction gone out that the ANC Youth League rolls into another school, during school hours, and with journalists in tow this time to hand over a donation to the school.

In many cases the victim of the mudslinging and the ill-discipline is Mr Zuma himself. When trade unions accuse Mr Trevor Manuel of being a ‘shop steward for business' they by association insult Mr Zuma who appointed Mr Manuel and at whose pleasure Mr Manuel continues to serve. When the ANC's youth league accuses the mining minister of lying to a conference of mining investors where she said that mines will not be nationalised they do the same. In this particular case the youth league of the ANC even went further to say that the mining minister privately shares their plans to nationalise mines and has told them as much! This sort of thing reflects badly on the honesty and integrity of Mr Zuma's government.

The issue of mining is a useful one to look more deeply at the failure of leadership by Mr Zuma. Mr Zuma appointed close on ten ministers and deputy ministers responsible for the economy through the portfolios of economic planning, economic development, mining, trade and industry, finance, and public enterprises. Yet it is the ANC youth league which articulates future economic and mining policy for South Africa through their ‘policy documents'. Their views come to dominate much international financial reporting on South Africa. The youth league is also left to loudly and directly contradict statements put out by cabinet ministers and at times even threaten those same ministers who disagree with the league's ‘policy documents'.

It is incredible that Mr Zuma allows this ‘farce', as it was described by yesterday's Sowetan, to go on. In so doing he undermines his cabinet and weakens the authority of cabinet ministers. Many cabinet ministers and senior ANC officials now appear to be so scared of talking about economic or mining policy that they seem to have gone into hiding where they busy themselves planning how they are one day going to plan policy. Where the ANC's leadership does try and explain who is in charge they make fools of themselves as happened to Gwede Mantashe in his attempt to explain the ANC's position on nationalisation to Chris Barron in last week's Sunday Times.

Mr Zuma might laugh and smile and tell us that this is all just a big debate. His spokespeople will say that all this debate is very democratic but with every passing week of his presidency this explanation becomes less convincing. For leadership is not an antithesis to democracy or healthy debate. What we are now seeing in the ANC is less about democratic debate than it is about policy anarchy and paralysis. It would be very welcome to see Mr Zuma take charge to articulate government policy and take action against his youth league, which is doing great damage to South Africa's standing as an investment destination.

Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in Institute's online newsletter, SAIRR Today.

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