Poor Jacob Zuma. Even when he does something right he gets crucified. But don’t feel too sorry for him.
The prospect of massive job losses in the mining sector, the deteriorating value of the rand, the energy crisis and almost daily reports of the collapse of State-owned enterprises have led to an unprecedented sense of pessimism across South Africa in recent weeks.
The national mood became so dark that one expected the government leadership to stand up and say something to the nation. Which was exactly what Zuma did this week with his unusual ‘update’ on his State of the Nation address.
Yes, this kind of intervention should have taken place in Parliament, but we can’t blame Zuma for doing it at a press conference. If he had gone to Parliament he would simply have been shouted down by the EFF, interrupted endlessly and asked to “pay back the money”.
There wasn’t a lot wrong with what Zuma said in his progress report. He was correct to remark that our crisis wasn’t unique in the world. Of course he had to focus on the positive without denying the negative. As head of state he had to give us some hope that the slippery slope we’re on is actually not as steep or slippery as most South Africans seem to think.
Sadly, Zuma’s progress report intervention was a failure. If anything, it made many of us even more depressed.
I was looking for signs that he had a grip on the scope and nature of our problems; that he had at least some understanding of the nature of our economic woes and possible ways out.
There were no such signs. He read his statement haltingly in a manner that suggests he had no hand in writing it. His eyes followed word after word strung together in sentences and his mouth mechanically formed those words.
I found myself wondering who was responsible for the content of the statement he was reading. Was it the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Trade and Industry, the Minister of Economic Development or some ‘inter-ministerial committee’? Did the second-in-command have a say in it?
Well, on Wednesday we did hear from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in Parliament. The difference could not have been greater.
Apart from deftly warding off fierce attacks from the opposition, Ramaphosa spoke fluently and with authority on government’s decision to lessen the impact of new visa regulations on tourism and on the Chinese model of managing State-owned enterprises (Watch this space!).
This man’s considerable talents are wasted right now. He could be of so much more value to the ANC and the country.
The reality is that Zuma is the boss in the ANC. He is entrenched in all structures. His Zulu-speaking constituency is indispensable to the party. He is a master party manipulator. He’s not going anywhere – at least not until the ANC’s elective conference in mid-2017, perhaps right up to 2019 if he gets his way.
So how does the ANC keep him as Number One and still make full use of Ramaphosa?
Just a slight shift, I would suggest. Allow both men to focus on what they’re really good at.
Zuma should become more of a ceremonial president: a figurehead, a father figure, with Ramaphosa becoming more of a prime minister. No need to change the Constitution. This should simply be an arrangement, like Nelson Mandela had with his ‘prime minister’, Thabo Mbeki. That arrangement worked very well, I would say. Similar arrangements in other democracies have also worked.
Some may argue that we already have such an arrangement. Sure, when Zuma was very sick during the middle months of last year Ramaphosa did act as the de facto head of the executive, and few ordinary citizens noticed.
It is also true that Ramaphosa has been given a multitude of tasks, such as making peace in South Sudan and Lesotho, overseeing efforts to ameliorate the energy crisis and saving State-owned enterprises – a bit of a presidential dogsbody, in fact, but no clear mandate to play a leading role in the executive.
Chapter 90 of the Constitution states: “The Deputy President must assist the President in the execution of the functions of government.” Indeed. We just need him to have a little more power in doing that.
We need Ramaphosa to be a CEO working with the president or chairman of SA Inc.
But this is pure fantasy. There are too many in the ANC, including Zuma, who are scared of Ramaphosa building up too much of a power base. There are too many cabinet ministers, especially people like Blade Nzimande, Ebrahim Patel, Rob Davies and Jeff Radebe, who I suspect would hate to answer to Ramaphosa.
Let’s not forget that the battle for Zuma’s successor is now in full swing, especially after the Women’s League indicated that they want a woman (read: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) rather than the natural candidate, the deputy president, to succeed Zuma.
Dream on, business people.