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Ferial Haffajee: Zuma, Free Fees And The Cult Of Amateurs

Mzobe and Masutha are symbols of the president’s predilection for kitchen cabinets where policy is decided outside of formal government structures.

13/11/2017 09:03 SAST | Updated 13/11/2017 11:28 SAST
Rogan Ward/ Reuters
South African President Jacob Zuma.

Back in 2013, I got a call from Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the genial politician then serving as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

What, she wanted to know, was the problem with a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) being given R1-billion from government to run nutrition or food security? Her department was inefficient and not achieving its food security strategies and plans, so why not outsource?

I was City Press editor at the time and my colleagues had produced a story I had at first thought to be perfectly implausible.

The tip-off that made its way onto our list of stories for investigation was that President Jacob Zuma's cousin Deebo Mzobe, a colourful businessman from Durban, was to get R1-billion from government for his NGO called Masibambisane. This huge state payment marked the outsourcing of all food security initiatives throughout the country to a family business linked to the president.

Zuma was so enticed by his cousin's ideas on how to end hunger, that he held a function at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria to share the brainwave with local business-people and political leaders. It was, frankly, madness and a ruse by the wily Mzobe to build his personal fortune. Horrified whistleblowers told the journalists who reported the story.

Up to that point, Masibambisane got huge support from Joemat-Pettersson's department and from Zuma personally. The president was often pictured dressed as a farmworker hanging from the tractors the project gave to new and small farmers.

Like Mzobe's amateur plans to end hunger, Zuma appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for Masutha's ideas of culling from department budgets here and there to immediately fund a fee-free model.

The story of how much Mzobe coined from Masibambisane is still to be written.

A Timeslive report last week that Zuma's son-in-law Morris Masutha had written a fee-free model for universities is further evidence of our president's cult of amateurism. While Zuma appointed the Heher commission of inquiry to do an exhaustive 748 -- page study into how we can pay for the fees of poor and working-class students, the president was enticed instead by Masutha's back of envelope calculations.

Like Mzobe's amateur plans to end hunger, Zuma appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for Masutha's ideas of culling from department budgets here and there to immediately fund a fee-free model. His model involved rewriting the entire national budget and reports suggest it is being driven from within the Presidency. As with Masibambisane, it is madness and upsets the careful system of budgeting South Africa has built up over two decades.

This is not simply stated capture or looting or the further entrenchment of a Zuma dynasty in all crevices of the state. What is remarkable and dangerous is the president's fallibility for easy ideas and schemes brought to him by amateurs.

As he did with Masibambisane and now with Masutha's free fee plan, Zuma uses state power and resources to bypass systems of governance and policy to engage simple and simplistic ideas to complex problems. Zuma's administration has marked a shift in the practice of choosing South Africa's best technocratic brains to the government by amateurs.

Mzobe and Masutha are symbols of the president's predilection for kitchen cabinets where policy is decided outside of formal government structures. But even in his choice of national executive, President Zuma has appointed non-specialists and junior politicians into key roles making for a cult of the amateur leading to South Africa's growing underdevelopment.