Zuma's year of hunkering down

William Saunderson-Meyer identifies the most baffling conundrum of 2016


The good ship South Africa rode out 2016 in port. Her master, Jacob Zuma, distracted by the bailiffs pounding at his cabin door, simply failed to embark on the challenging journey that was scheduled. 

One can understand his dilemma. Given the furious storms he encountered while tethered at berth, it must have seemed the height of folly to venture into the wild seas beyond the safety of the harbour mouth. 

The African National Congress is not concerned. It appears to have decided that party unity, not actually going somewhere, is of paramount concern. Zuma will be allowed to remain unchallenged at the helm at least until the leadership conference in December 2017. 

President Zuma, meanwhile, is focusing on the only thing that matters to him – self-preservation. Consequently nothing much else gets done.

Legislation is piling up, unsigned by Zuma and therefore unimplemented. 

One of the most important is the Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill, which makes South Africa compliant with international efforts to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. This languished in his in-tray for five months before he sent it back to Parliament, citing concerns over its “constitutionality”. 

It is touching that the president, who has been declared by the Constitutional Court to have violated his oath of office, is now suddenly concerned about the Bill’s “impermissibly overbroad” provisions for the invasion of the “inner sanctum” of people’s privacy. However, the timing means that the Bill will not be passed before the February deadline of the global regulatory body, threatening the international operations of the hitherto highly regarded SA financial system.

These kinds of negative effects, flowing from Zuma’s political paralysis, are everywhere apparent. In fact, as Zuma, over the past year, has drawn more into himself, it is such failures to act – rather than the moves he actually has made – that give the better clue to the rotting state of his presidency. 

Take the SA Broadcasting Corporation, which has been an unending circus, with an illegally appointed chief operating officer who faked his matric certificate as the principal clown. The man has destroyed its journalistic credibility, bullied its staff, improperly awarded himself millions in bonuses, and sold its archives to a rival broadcaster for a song, in the process kicking loose yet another multi-million bonus.

And the Minister of Communications, the utterly useless Faith Muthambi, has presided over this mess and, on the face of the evidence before the parliamentary inquiry, colluded in it. But she still has her job and appears in no danger of losing it. 

This week she absolved herself of all blame, cheekily taking refuge in the doctrine of shared blame. “The governance failure of SABC should be a collective responsibility … I inherited a dysfunctional board … The board failing to exercise its fiduciary duty, that’s not my competence … that’s why we are here [at the inquiry].”

There is also the memorable incident of Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who issued a statement falsely claiming that that Cabinet had agreed to an inquiry into the the major banks' decision to break ties with the Gupta family, Zuma’s controversial cronies. In any other country, to lie on this scale would incur an instant dismissal, but not in Zuma’s world, where Zwane escaped with an unspecified “reprimand”. 

Of course, it is not surprising that a president who is fighting for his political survival, with a substantial number of the national executive scheming his ousting, will do everything possible to placate those who might turn on him. Less easy to explain is his failure to act against the foes outside the ANC who are trying to destroy him, specifically Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema.

Earlier this year, Malema taunted the presidency with the outrageous claim that Zuma had packed R6bn in suitcases and flown with the money to Dubai for the Guptas, “because when Zuma travels he doesn’t get searched by customs”.

This, unless true, is clearly defamatory of Zuma and the Guptas. In the past, both parties have in been quick to seek redress in the courts. 

The presidency did issue a statement threatening legal action over the “malicious allegations”. That was in April. Malema has not withdrawn his claim, nor apologised, but the most litigious president in our history still hasn’t served a writ.

Now why would that be? It’s the most baffling conundrum of 2016. Or not?

This column resumes on January 14, 2017. Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye