Why Zuma is no Mbeki

2013-08-04 14:00

How is Jacob Zuma’s presidency different to Thabo Mbeki’s? In his extraordinary new book, political analyst Richard Calland tracks the differences and similarities. In an exclusive first extract, he also writes about power and who has it. Can anybody say ‘no’ to President Zuma?

Thursday, August 16 2012 was a typical late-winter’s day in Rustenburg. The weather was clear and pleasantly warm, like most winter days on the Highveld.

In the muggier Maputo, an afternoon storm threatened. As the wily South African president and former long-standing head of the ANC’s intelligence wing, Jacob Zuma, sat at a Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state meeting in the humid Mozambican capital, a massive storm of an entirely different nature – of a political and socioeconomic character – was heading his way. It was one he could not see coming.

When a moment of national crisis arrives, for a head of state there is only one thing worse than being at home to greet it – not being at home.

The SADC meeting was dragging on. Zuma’s own concentration was waning as a series of new heads of state introduced themselves and felt inclined to offer small, and in some cases not-so-small, speeches, thus prolonging the proceedings even further.

Zuma’s 9/11 moment 

Just more than 600km west of Maputo, members of the SA Police Service were, for reasons that at the time of writing still remain inexplicable, opening fire on a ragged bunch of striking Lonmin platinum miners.

South Africa changed forever when 34 of those miners were shot dead.

It was Zuma’s 9/11 moment. Most people have seen the footage of George W Bush being told by his chief of staff, Andrew Card, about the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, as the president sat with a class of young pupils being taught to read by an earnest and energetic teacher.

The seven members of the White House press corps who were watching later recalled their surprise: no one ever interrupts the US president. Zuma’s own chief of staff, Lakela Kaunda, faced the same dilemma.

The text message from the media staffer back in Pretoria who first relayed the news to presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj, who had accompanied Zuma to the SADC summit, said that more than 50 miners had been killed.

Maharaj’s immediate reaction was to inform Zuma without delay. He spoke to Kaunda, who told him Zuma was with the other heads of state and she could not interrupt. So they sent a note in to Zuma, who then requested SADC chair Armando Guebuza to permit his release from the meeting so that he could return to South Africa immediately.

According to one of Zuma’s staff, Guebuza “pleaded” with Zuma to stay until the new heads of state had finished their prolix introductions. Out of respect for his host, and fastidious as he is about protocol, Zuma agreed to stay and let Kaunda know as much.

A matter of timing 

Maharaj knew the political significance of getting back as soon as possible. When Kaunda told him Zuma had decided to stay for the remaining inaugural speeches, Maharaj asked how many were left. When told, he informed colleagues in Pretoria: “We’ve got to wait for five f***ing new heads of state!”

The reason for Zuma’s tardy return to South Africa – his respect for SADC protocol – was not made known at the time.

As it was, they were only able to take off from Maputo after 6pm, but as soon as the president’s jet landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria, his convoy sped straight towards Rustenburg.

How a president responds to a crisis not only shapes both public and media attitudes, it also informs his presidency as a whole. Maharaj knew this was a big moment, and the public and the media’s demands would be testing. He needed to be alongside his principal when he arrived at the Lonmin corporate lodge – a strange choice of venue, under the circumstances – to address the media.

But fate would intervene, and Maharaj would not be alongside Zuma at the press conference. He was still making his way across the West Rand after his driver got lost in Pretoria upon leaving Waterkloof. This is the sort of thing that can happen, the small mishaps that can have untold wider implications.

Zuma’s performance at the press conference was anything but convincing.

The moment called for reassurance, for a sense that government was in control. But more than anything, it required a dose of humanity to capture and reflect the public’s sense of outrage and concern that so many lives could be lost in such an apparently barbaric way.

South Africa got none of this from its president that night.

The failure of Marikana

Marikana was a failure of intelligence gathering on the one hand, and of dialogue and negotiation on the other. Asked whether they think something like Marikana could have happened under Mbeki, numerous people acquainted with both leaders answer a straight “no”.

Why could Marikana not have happened under Mbeki? Because Mbeki had more refined structures and better advisers – a large kitchen cabinet that included his own private group of intelligence operatives.

Comparisons between Zuma’s presidency and that of his predecessor, Mbeki, are as inevitable as comparisons between the men themselves. A key element of the transition from Mbeki to Zuma, and of the “Polokwane effect”, was the overhaul of the presidency.

There are still sincere and capable people in the presidency, but they are no longer around the president as such. The kitchen cabinet (the Policy Coordination and Advisory Service, which was led by the brilliant Joel Netshitenzhe) has been smashed.

Part of the motive for the restructuring was positive – to create two new wings that would provide for national planning on the one hand and oversight of government performance on the other. Another part was negative: to prevent a repeat of the “imperial” Mbeki presidency, in which the president was able to “overcome” his ministers through the sheer force of his organisational capacity.

The intellectual resources of the new presidency would be housed not in the west wing, which is occupied primarily by the president and his private office. Instead, they would be housed in the new National Planning Commission (NPC) secretariat and, to an even greater degree, in the new department of performance monitoring and evaluation (DPME).

So, when Zuma is feeling curious and wants the answer to something, he has to turn to one or other of his new structures. Staff from both the NPC and the DPME tell me how, every now and then, they get an urgent call from the private office of the president, always from Zuma’s right-hand woman, Kaunda, requesting information or answers. It’s usually urgent and they have to jump.

The whispers in Zuma’s ear

Yet Zuma does get advice from other sources, as a senior official in the presidency told me when we crossed paths at an entirely unconnected seminar early this year. This person asked: “When is your new book coming out? You see, we know the president gets advice. We just don’t know who he gets it from. And I’m hoping you’re going to tell us in your book.”

The “Friends of Zuma” campaign that was constituted when Zuma was facing rape and, later, corruption charges, provides some clues, pointing to various businesspeople, mostly from KwaZulu-Natal.

These include Sifiso Zulu, who was recently paroled after serving nine months of a three-year prison sentence for killing two people in 2008 after jumping a red traffic light; Vivian Reddy; Sizwe Shezi, who chairs the Jacob G Zuma RDP Education Trust, which attracted controversy last year after revelations that a donor to the trust – EduSolutions – had won a lucrative government tender; SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, who is now minister of higher education; Fikile “Slovo” Majola, the general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union; and Don Mkhwanazi on behalf of KwaZulu-Natal black business.

Zuma still listens to Zweli Mkhize, a rising star in the ANC who now holds the powerful position of treasurer-general in the party’s national executive.

The geography of this support is illustrative of the general landscape of Zuma’s political career – or, at least, his return from the political dead.

One of Zuma’s most influential advisers, Lindiwe Zulu, describes how Zuma differs from his predecessor: “Mbeki’s character was not so easy. He did not laugh easily. The two are completely different from each other. Zuma creates the comfort around the place, it is just in his nature.”

She adds: “I am able to argue with my principal, because he has the patience and the ear to listen. I don’t think twice about going to the president.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh gosh, what is he going to be thinking of today? What is his mood?’ I will go with my list.”

Mac Maharaj’s  view

When I meet Mac Maharaj, Zuma’s presidential spokesperson, he sits demurely in one of the vast chairs that adorn the lobby of Cape Town’s 15 on Orange Hotel, looking every bit like a Bond villain, an Indian Blofeld sans the cat.

He is helpful and insightful about the presidency, and anything but anodyne in his commentary: “There is a hell of a lot in this presidency, I suppose in any presidency, that is unclear or unstructured.

“Having worked under Mandela, I can say that structure is important, but every president must find his way past the structure in order to find his own style,” says Maharaj.

Maharaj believes the critical positions in the presidency are the director-general and the chief of staff. Under previous presidents, the director-general was also the chief of staff. But these days, the roles have been separated, with former journalist Kaunda fulfilling the role of chief of staff and Cassius Lubisi that of director-general.

Kaunda is the chief gatekeeper. The former journalist and Zuma go back a long way. Virtually every major speech Zuma gives is written by her – which is an onerous responsibility – and she is one of the most powerful individuals in the country, by virtue of her proximity to Zuma and the role she plays.

Lubisi is an experienced public servant and knows the regulatory environment very well. He is a “calm presence, doesn’t rush around, doesn’t rush to judgement. He is easy to get on with. He is firm when he needs to be”, according to Mac.

Mbeki had no one around him who was willing to say: “No, Mr President, you are wrong.”

Does Zuma have such people? “This president has a different problem. Too many people looking at his body language and guessing what they think will make him happy and then doing it. I think it’s a huge problem,” Maharaj replies.

Maharaj’s Nkandla ‘crisis’

He, not me, raises Nkandla – the president’s controversial homestead on which about R250 million of public money is said to have been spent – as an example of his point.

Maharaj says: “How much of it is ministers and officials doing their own damn thing? I find it difficult to believe this was the president saying: ‘Yes, close down the public clinic and move the resources to my home.’ Knowing him as I do, I don’t believe he would agree to that, and I don’t think it could have been put to him like that.”

Maharaj then tells me something really extraordinary: he suggested to Zuma he go to Nkandla and take a look for himself, “through the bunker and the whole damn thing. And the (Zuma) says to me: ‘Go on, it’s a good idea.’ But I didn’t.”

Why not?

“To a certain extent, what I am telling you in this example isn’t going to help me in my job to know more, because I have to ask a different question. Is this a matter on which I stand or fall? If I find something significantly unacceptable, will I say goodbye?”

I ask: “So you didn’t want to put yourself in that position?”

He replies: “No. I would have had a crisis.”

This is extraordinary. Maharaj, whose seniority in the ANC and his own proud record as a liberation fighter would have enabled him to stand up to Zuma, could not bring himself to do so because he was afraid of what he might find if he looked too hard.

Perhaps he is not the first spin doctor who has turned a blind eye in order to avoid knowing too much about his or her principal, but it is still a pretty astonishing admission.

And it answers my question as to whether Zuma has anyone who can say “no” to him.

Because if Mac can’t, then perhaps no one can.

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