Where gods and thinkers fear to tread

2014-07-13 15:00

Tired of a god (Nelson Mandela) and a philosopher (Thabo Mbeki), the governing ANC chose in Jacob Zuma an everyman as its president.

Go to any party function and you will witness how well-loved the ANC’s fun-loving leader is. I’ve buried myself in party crowds to try understand why the party elected him and have come to see that his political attraction lies in him being a man of realisable aspiration. He is down-to-earth and easy to get on with – you could be him.

Out of prison, Mandela was like a god on earth; a global phenomenon, neither owned by the party nor the nation state. He belonged to the world and, while he was deeply loved, icons come once in an age.

When he stepped down, the ANC chose a philosopher and an intellectual in former president Mbeki. He knew everything about everything; read everything; loved the academies and preferred the company of people like himself.

He ran the country with a kitchen cabinet of elites, many of whom did not come from the ANC. This deeply angered the governing party. It also angered the mass of ordinary ANC supporters who did not support him. While Mbeki thought deeply about how to improve the life of the masses, he made it clear he was not of them.

The rationale for a President Zuma is perfectly understandable. And for a while his administration was fun. You could feel the nation settle into party mode as we let our hair down and had a break after the struggle. And after the Mbeki years when, I for one, felt I always had to be on my best behaviour.

The unintended consequence of not choosing your best son or daughter to lead is that they, in turn, do not choose the best to lead.

It may be a common management dictum to leaders to surround themselves with people cleverer than them, but President Zuma did not get the memo. And so we have a succession of poor presidential appointments, either by his direct hand or by that of his appointees.

The SABC’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is said to owe his rise to presidential diktat. The unsuitable National Director of Public Prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, was chosen by the president’s right-hand man and lawyer, Michael Hulley.

Our Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is doing a decent job but can we really say he is the best of the best? If the Zuma administration is the administration of the common man, it also marks an epoch when the ANC stopped choosing the best possible to lead.

But things are changing.

By Friday, as I wrote this, Motsoeneng’s appointment was turning into a political crisis. The ANC, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu have dug in their heels over it.

Their opposition appears procedural – Communications Minister Faith Muthambi appointed him without the broadcaster having advertised the post, and she did not consult the ANC (she is not a national executive member and is therefore a political junior).

But in fact, the chorus of outcry from the Tripartite Alliance against Motsoeneng goes deeper. The ANC is tired of being embarrassed.

The last time the alliance raised a howl was when the president’s friends, the Gupta family, landed a jet filled with wedding guests at Air Force Base Waterkloof.

For years, the headlines have throbbed with various Motsoeneng hilarities: from his demand for quota-based sunshine journalism to last week’s statement that journalists must be licensed.

But, most of all, the party values qualifications and education. You can’t run a R4?billion enterprise without the requisite experience and qualification, according to Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.

Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu, who also heads the ANC’s communications team, told the Mail?& Guardian the Public Protector had set up a case for the SABC to answer. By appointing Motsoeneng, the minister had ridden roughshod over Thuli Madonsela, she implied.

Madonsela’s report on the SABC is a forensic study of fraud, the eschewal of governance and of unprocedural pay for Motsoeneng.

The ANC wants to be seen to respect the institutions it helped create. If you read Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent speech at the Nat Nakasa Awards, the understanding of the role of the media in a new democracy is sophisticated and nuanced.

Hold our feet to the fire, he said, but also remember the good the ANC has done. This is a far cry from Motsoeneng’s facile categorisation of news and media into “good” and “bad”. The next weeks will reveal much about the future of Motsoeneng and about our president.

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