POLITICS

The Imperial Presidency

President Jacob Zuma rules, he doesn’t govern, and he does so with an iron fist.

17/10/2017 16:34 SAST | Updated 18/10/2017 07:23 SAST
Graphics24 / Rudi Louw

In "The Imperial Presidency", his celebrated account of the first 10 years of the presidency of apartheid head of state P.W. Botha, journalist Brian Pottinger details how the increasingly frustrated and besieged "Groot Krokodil" (great crocodile) retreated into the presidency.

Pottinger explains how Botha started lashing out against "liberals" who dared to visit other African countries to establish détènte as "traitors" who consorted with "murderers and rapists". He started alienating himself from friends and allies, preferring to keep his own counsel and those of a few trusted advisers in Pretoria, and, according to Pottinger, used the office of the Presidency as political cover for controversial decisions.

It has now become abundantly clear – if it wasn't so before – that Zuma does not consider himself bound by the ANC's vaunted tradition of "collective leadership"

Botha was at the head "of a growing repressive system dominated by in increasingly isolated president" Pottinger writes. Replace "repressive" with "corrupt" and the similarities between the two men as presidents become clear.

Zuma has become a modern-day imperial president. He rules, rather than governs, and does so by presidential decree.

Where Botha felt under threat from people in contact with the liberation movement, Zuma is threatened by ANC leaders agitating for change -- both blaming the West.

Where Botha's behaviour isolated him from erstwhile allies in the Afrikaner nationalist movement, Zuma's behaviour has alienated him from traditional allies in the broader tripartite alliance.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary general, was left mealy-mouthed when asked to explain the 12th Cabinet reshuffle to the media

And where Botha took refuge in the presidency in justifying controversial decisions such as militarisation, Zuma hides behind presidential prerogative when firing ministers.

It has now become abundantly clear -- if it wasn't so before -- that Zuma does not consider himself bound by the ANC's vaunted tradition of "collective leadership" whereby decisions of national importance are taken through the building of consensus. His latest Cabinet reshuffle has again exposed the ANC's leadership as having no traction with the president and that the party has no mechanism or strategy to rein him in.

Pieter du Toit

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary-general, was left mealy-mouthed when asked to explain the 12th Cabinet reshuffle to the media, meekly conceding that the party wasn't "consulted" but merely "informed" about the reshuffle.

Zuma has done enormous damage to both party and state, but has managed to not only survive -- he has also managed to entrench his power and influence.

It was reminiscent of the infamous interview he did with Talk Radio 702's Xolani Gwala the day after the previous midnight reshuffle, where he was also at a loss to explain why the leadership of National Treasury was decapitated: "I can't use the word 'consulted'... the ANC was informed. We were given a list that was complete. I felt like this list had been developed somewhere else and given to us to legitimise. I am very uncomfortable because... ministers who did not perform were left untouched. He [Zuma] knows we are unhappy... he knows."

He was joined in his criticism by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who all bemoaned the fact that Zuma reshuffled Cabinet without the governing party's consent. Embarrassingly, they had to recant their criticism and Mantashe apologised in public on behalf of the trio.

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Gwede Mantashe and President Jacob Zuma at the ANC's policy conference earlier this year. Mantashe, the party's secretary general, has been unable to manage the president.

Zuma has over the last 22 months survived the most turbulent period of any democratic president. He has done enormous damage to both party and state, but has managed to not only survive -- he has also managed to entrench his power and influence. He fired Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance, the Constitutional Court found he violated his oath of office, he presided over the worst showing of the ANC at any election, he buried the Public Protector's report into state capture, fired a second minister of finance, survived a contentious motion of no-confidence and has successfully evaded corruption charges for more than a decade.

Thabo Mbeki, deposed and replaced by Zuma because he was "aloof" and concentrated executive power in the Union Buildings rather than Luthuli House, couldn't dream of doing what Zuma has done.

All three of the most recent changes to the executive -- Nene, Gordhan et al and Tuesday's reshuffle -- had far-reaching consequences, were done in the interests of rent-seeking and without the support of the ANC's elected leadership or the alliance partners. And there have been no consequences.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, deposed and replaced by Zuma because he was "aloof" and concentrated executive power in the Union Buildings rather than Luthuli House, couldn't dream of doing what Zuma has done. He has effectively neutered the governing party and castrated the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu. There is almost nothing left of the grand coalition that has dominated South African politics since 1994.

AOL
Jacob Zuma alongside Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa at the Codesa negotiations in August 1991. Zuma is on the cusp of playing the perfect game.

It was cringeworthy listening to the reaction of Mantashe, Solly Mapaila from the SACP and Sizwe Pamla of Cosatu, explaining how "enough is enough" and "a line has been drawn in the sand". Enough was in December 2015 when Nene was dumped for a Gupta appointee or in March 2016 when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng berated Zuma for violating the Constitution. But enough should surely have been enough for even the most jingoistic ANC cadre when the party lost three metropolitan municipalities in last year's municipal election. It wasn't and Zuma has subsequently grown more brazen, more detached and more determined every passing day.

Zuma is nearing the end of his term and the rent-seeking networks that he enabled will be extracting as much as they can from the public purse

Where does this leave the country (because the party is clearly unable to make a course correction)?

Zuma is nearing the end of his term and the rent-seeking networks that he enabled will be extracting as much as they can from the public purse, which means critical damage to various institutions such as the Public Investment Corporation (PIC). He will also be ruthless in ensuring that the ring of steel protecting him from accountability and scrutiny is reinforced and he will cynically manipulate and manoeuvre to influence the ANC's elective conference.

Zuma has almost played the perfect game. He is less than two years away from completing his term of office and he has made the calculation that the ANC won't recall him like it did with Mbeki. The damage was too great. If the party repeats the exercise it will be even greater this time.

Attending a ceremony in Limpopo on Tuesday for the opening of a new bridge across the N1, Zuma was surrounded by balaclava-clad members of the police's elite tactical unit with automatic weapons at the ready, by barrel-chested bodyguards leading the way and followed by a phalanx of assistants and sycophants bringing up the rear. He refused to answer any questions.

He has become the imperial president.