Newsmaker 2011: No longer the messiah

2011-12-23 11:01

President Jacob Zuma started 2011 as an indecisive president who seemed unwilling – or unable – to take decisions.

Zuma was afraid these decisions could alienate sections of the eclectic support base that swept him to power in December 2007.

He ended the year locked in a battle for survival with the party’s influential ANC Youth League (ANCYL) over his decision to charge its motormouth president, Julius Malema, with bringing the party into disrepute.

The year kicked off with labour federation Cosatu, the ANC’s biggest alliance partner, being the most vocal in its critique of the man its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, once referred to as a “political tsunami”.

By the time Cosatu’s central committee sat in June, Vavi’s report was scathing.

It was now unwise for Cosatu to place “too much faith in one individual who is himself subject to all types of contradictory pulls”.

These criticisms, the behaviour of the ANCYL leadership and the focus on failed service delivery thrown up by a brutal local government election left Zuma in a position where he had to take the plunge – and make the decisions he had thus far so studiously avoided.

Zuma was no longer the multipurpose messiah who toppled Thabo Mbeki and who had to please all of his allies.

Now some allies were openly his enemies.

The coalition which had carried Polokwane had split.

For Zuma, it was already crystal clear who would back him for a second term as ANC president at Mangaung next December and who wanted him out.

Despite the protests of other ANC heavyweights, Zuma went for broke in dealing with Malema, the public face of the lobby against him within the party’s national executive committee, using the party’s structures and processes to suspend him for five years.

Zuma’s use of the courageous Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s investigations to deal with embarrassments in government has been instructive.

Madonsela’s rulings on former cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Sicelo Shiceka, public works boss Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and the police’s General Bheki Cele have given Zuma ammunition to drop the hammer.

Zuma’s appointment of a commission of inquiry into the arms deal, and his release of the long-awaited Donen report into the Iraq oil-for-food scandal, allowed him to avoid embarrassing legal challenges on both issues. Both decisions also helped marginalise his potential challengers to an extent.

The steady growth of his family’s business empire and the negative publicity surrounding their dealings continued to dog the president’s heels throughout the year.

Allies and detractors alike have criticised his links with the wealthy Gupta family, while the involvement of nephew Khulubuse’s Aurora Empowerment Systems in the downfall of Pamodzi’s gold mines has ensured continual bad publicity that is likely to escalate in 2012.

Following Zuma’s second Cabinet reshuffle in October, it looked like the year would end pretty well. But the old bogey of bad appointments again raised its head.

Not only did Special Investigating Unit head Willem Heath only last 17 days because of his loose lips, but Zuma’s “irregular” appointment of Menzi Simelane as chief prosecutor seems to have set the president a date with the Constitutional Court in 2012.

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