Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya: Hamba kabi, Nxamalala

2018-02-18 06:01
President Jacob Zuma. (Phill Magakoe, AFP)

President Jacob Zuma. (Phill Magakoe, AFP)

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Ministers and bureaucrats who served in the Thabo Mbeki administration quiver when they talk about his attention to detail and how he would often use his grasp of issues to wield fear.

While his vast knowledge and voracious consumption of facts was a wonderful quality, Mbeki had the tendency to belittle those who were the actual experts on the subject. At Cabinet lekgotlas he would single out an individual and grill them at length about their subject matter just to send a signal to everyone else that they should always come prepared.

In Cabinet meetings he would randomly pick a minister to lead a discussion on a portfolio that was not his or hers. This was to make sure that ministers read their Cabinet briefs and were familiar with the work of the entire government system. A Cabinet meeting could not just be a routine ritual. It had to be intense and thorough.

When it came to speeches, such as the state of the nation address, he wanted intricate detail from the departments so that his speech contained real substance. He was so pedantic that the communication went back and forth between the presidency and the departments. The downside of this was that the emphasis on technical detail sometimes detracted from the legendary poetic character of his speeches.

In the run up to budget day it was customary for Treasury to send the president the speech and the bulky budget review so that the big man was fully in the picture. Much to the frustration of officials, the documents would come back from Mbeki with lots of sticky notes asking for clarity and making suggestions. This meant more work for everybody but a better product in the end.

In Jacob Zuma’s first year as president Treasury officials continued this practice. They duly sent the documents to the presidency and waited patiently for the input of Number One – sticky notes and all. But when the package came back the documents were in pristine condition. Not even the odd sign that a page had been touched, nevermind turned. The man just could not be bothered about all these big numbers, expenditure items, revenue flows and complex matrices. He was fine as long as there was money in the kitty and the opportunity to steal it and share it with friends and family.

This don’t-care attitude when it came to the nitty-gritty of governance was to characterise Zuma’s almost nine years in office. Ministers who served under Mbeki and Zuma describe the different experiences of serving under the two men as day and night.

They speak of a president who had no qualms about taking a call on his unofficial cellphone and giggling like a smitten teenage girl as he walked out of the room to speak to the person in the corridor. Although they had no idea who was at the other the end of the line, his demeanour showed that it was a casual call from a Zanele, Tshidi or Rhulani or alternatively a dodgy call from Atul, Ajay or Rajesh.

On other occasions – sometimes involving outsiders – he would nod off during important discussions, something that his ministers attributed to his understandably hectic night-time schedule.

The quality of Cabinet meetings was also of a low standard because the person chairing the session was unfamiliar with what was being discussed. But neither were many of the people in the room.

A hallmark of the Zuma presidency was the inferior grade of people he appointed to Cabinet. Although it is not necessary for someone to be schooled on an issue before being appointed to a portfolio, he or she at least has to have the intellectual wherewithal to get to grips with the subject. But with Zuma you were not appointed for your brains, diligence and willingness to serve, but for loyalty and your ability to fulfil his nefarious ends.

The deficiency of the Zuma years cascaded through government all the way down to the local level. The consequence of having an amoral leader who is also clueless about his job and not really interested in using his position for the good of the country, was that the entire body politic was disabled. Mini-Zumas cropped up all over the government and they, too, replicated themselves. Governance and delivery became incidental. Corruption and indolence were normalised. The lines between right and wrong blurred.

The other area in which Zuma hurt us was social cohesion. His rise to power was on the back of personal grievance and he spread his outrage to society as a whole. He encouraged the black working class and those who claimed to represent them to join him in being aggrieved.

During his climb to power he believed he was being persecuted by Mbeki. When his predecessor was out of the way he had to find himself new tormentors to feed the grievance narrative. He found these in the form of the “clever blacks” – the middle class – who supposedly resented him because he, the man of the people, was disturbing their new privilege that they were enjoying with the whites. He was tormented by intellectuals of all hues because, in his mind, they were threatened by the idea of a peasant being in power. He found them in white South Africans who apparently didn’t like him because he was such a radical revolutionary. Western nations were also open to torment because he was an arch anti-imperialist who threatened their neocolonialist plans.

Under Zuma we were all supposed to be angry at something. Many bought into this and the national conversation became toxic, an unhealthy hurling and counterhurling of expletives.

Weirdly, it was also under Zuma, the revolutionary champion of the black cause, that the racists and the resisters of transformation gained confidence. His corruption, incompetence and propensity for gaffes gave racists perfect cover for their prejudices. Jokes about Zuma were code for views on blacks. His accumulation of wives and ability to bear fruit like a Limpopo avocado tree in summer further entrenched perverted views about Africans being sex-crazed creatures.

Zuma’s absent-mindedness also helped corporates that were not serious about transformation to get away with simply ticking the boxes.

The Mbeki administration’s determination to push the transformation project from the very top, using a big stick, gave way to sloganeering and empty rhetoric. Ministers who sounded radical on political platforms forgot their speeches as soon as they returned to the office. They failed to even use the admittedly limited, but effective, instruments at their disposal to drive transformation. Corporates became arrogant and dismissive. Transformation went into reverse.

As he was departing, his most loyal supporters in the ANC saluted him for his leadership and thanked him for his time at the helm of the party. This was bizarre given what he had done to his own party despite his once stating that the ANC came before the republic. On his watch the ANC became a cacophonous collection of factions. Its ally – union federation Cosatu – was seriously weakened through a damaging split that was directly related to him. The SA Communist Party became a vocal critic of the ANC. Most importantly, the ANC lost support dramatically as control of some of the country’s metros fell to the opposition and its tally at the polls declined. All because of him.

Zuma’s nine-year misrule will be felt for many years to come as South Africa repairs the damage he caused. We will feel it in governance, in parastatals, in the economy, in institutions, in social change and in the moral fibre of the country.

As Zuma sets off to commune with his livestock and wait for the day he has to don orange overalls, South Africa and the world are left asking how a man who was so wrong to begin with remained in power for so long. And how he was even re-elected for a second term despite overwhelming evidence that he was eating our resources and gayly urinating on our laws and the Constitution that underpins them.

Well there have been many answers to this question and they have to do with the fact that, inasmuch as he is grossly inept, he has always been a master of the game of power. He played craftily and viciously. In fact so viciously that some people spread a spurious and unsubstantiated rumour that he got his two heads from swallowing his twin in the womb during a fight over nutrition.

This viciousness was evident from the story told to this newspaper recently by ANC veteran and former national police commissioner Bheki Cele about how Zuma sat with him and – with a straight face – made long-term plans for policing while preparing to fire him the following day. When Cele left, enthusiastic about the plans they had discussed, he received a warm goodbye that did not betray his boss’ intention one bit.

“Hamba kahle, mfanakithi [Go well, my brother],” Zuma calmly said to Cele.

After all the pain and suffering he has caused, it would be hypocritical and dishonest for South Africa to bid him farewell the same way.

Instead the more appropriate one would be to say: “Hamba kabi, nsizwa yaseNkandla. [Go badly, son of Nkandla.]”


Was Zuma a good or bad president? Does he leave a nasty taste in your mouth, or will you miss him?

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Read more on:    anc  |  jacob zuma

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