Mpumelelo Mkhabela

How Zuma lost real power

2017-03-31 08:55
President Jacob Zuma. (GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma. (GCIS)

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In politics, there are two types of power a political leader in power cannot do without. The first is a set of formal, rule-book powers bestowed upon a leader by the institution he leads. Let’s call it institutional power. For example, according to the Constitution, the president of South Africa has the power to appoint and fire Cabinet ministers without explanation.

The second is soft power, the ability to persuade, secure voluntary following and command respect. This is not scripted in the Constitution. The possession of soft power is displayed through high ethical conduct, itself a reflection of a leader’s innate character.

Leaders who deploy soft power are those who have a huge stock of what the political scientist John Kane calls “moral capital” – public moral judgements that inspire trust, belief and allegiance.

Institutional power and soft power complement each other. A leader who intelligently uses both types is likely to be more effective. The opposite is true of a leader who relies on one type of power.

If it hasn’t totally run dry, Zuma’s soft power has now reached the water levels of dams in the Western Cape. The big difference, though, is that at some point the dams will fill up.

In his book, The Myth of a Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, Archie Brown writes: “Institutional power adds enormously to the potential impact of a leader. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that having your hands on levers of power is not the same as leadership in its purest form.”

While his institutional powers remain intact, Zuma has struggled to convince South Africans that his use of such power is in the national interest. People do not trust him. He is impossible to trust.

The failure to secure support from key stakeholders within and outside the tripartite alliance on his decision to axe Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, illustrates that outside the institution of the Presidency, Zuma is nearly finished.

Zuma has relied exclusively on his institutional powers to fire Gordhan and Jonas. The depletion of his soft power was not orchestrated by foreign “checkmate” agents or some other fictitious characters. It was engineered by Zuma, the moral hazard himself, in a series of blunders that include abuse of state power, corruption, failure to learn from previous mistakes and unbreakable association with foreigners whose mission is to divide the nation and loot its limited resources.

Zuma and his coterie of backers correctly invoke the Constitution to remind us of his prerogative to hire and fire ministers. But it sounds hypocritical to invoke a prerogative enabled by a Constitution which he failed to uphold and defend.

Soon after the Constitutional Court made the finding in the Nkandla matter, Zuma’s soft power, already limited by the hundreds of unresolved corruption charges and personal scandals, nosedived further. In Cabinet, he cannot use the Constitution he broke as yardstick to measure performance of ministers. So, his measurement of performance is the rate at which each minister nods at everything he says.

But the truth is, honest government officials see in him first and foremost the chief violator of the Constitution. Since no minister, including the most underperforming, have been found to have violated the Constitution, Zuma is the worst underperforming member of his Cabinet. Faced with an unresolvable inability to provide leadership, he focuses his attention on plotting his personal survival using institutional power.

If there was one good reason why Zuma should have been impeached after Nkandla, it is that he can no longer inspire Cabinet members, individually or collectively, to fulfill the highest constitutional obligations: to respect the Constitution and other laws of the Republic. He ceased to be the standard bearer of the Constitution or, in the words of the Constitutional Court, the “constitutional being”.

Zuma’s association with the Guptas has chipped away his soft power. The fact that some of his ministers had been to Saxonwold to get Gupta blessings and take instructions makes it impossible for them to respect him. Those who have not been to Saxonwold but know of others whose names were approved there don’t hold him in high regard because he has compromised the Republic’s executive authority.

Some of them know that allowing the Guptas to have a say on Cabinet appointments or influencing Cabinet decisions is a constitutional violation. With this in mind, no amount of corruption on their part, no amount of theft they can facilitate and no amount of bending of the rules they can fast-track, matches a constitutional violation. So, he has no moral high-ground to call them to order. His only instrument is to reshuffle Cabinet regularly to force compliance. This is not leadership.

As ministers, collectively and individually, they think of themselves as far much better than their president. Those who have not committed transgressions, have no links with corrupt elements, see themselves as towering above Zuma. He is, in their minds, a dwarf. This explains why they saw it as a moral imperative to ask the ANC’s National Executive Committee to recall him.

Under such circumstances, it is a privilege and an honour to be fired by Zuma rather than to serve under him. Such is the extent to which he has brought the institution of the executive into disrepute. His lack of moral standing and diminished soft power explains why Gordhan and Jonas, notwithstanding their knowledge that Zuma didn’t want them, would not resign.

Zuma has encouraged the violation of Cabinet protocols. The release of an unauthorised Cabinet statement suggesting an imminent inquiry into the conduct of banks in relation to the closure of Gupta accounts should have been followed by an immediate dismissal of Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane. Zuma failed to act.

Zuma also failed to act against the Nkandla ministers. He was obviously conflicted: Nkandla benefited him personally and the bank inquiry would have been used to force banks to violate the law and open bank accounts for the Guptas. This conflict of interests deprives Zuma of the moral capital necessary for the exercise of soft power.

Zuma has not taken action against Social Development Minister Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini who was found wanting by the Constitutional Court on her failure to implement the court’s previous ruling on social grants. Instead, he affirmed her.

He has allowed Nathi Nhleko to waste taxpayers’ money pursuing an unwinnable court cases to appoint a person lacking in integrity as head of the Hawks. In the latest reshuffle, Nhleko was promoted to a department that manages government’s multi-billion rand portfolio of physical asserts.

Zuma has not taken any steps against Minister Faith Muthambi whose competency was questioned by the National Assembly. Even worse, Muthambi wants to go to the courts to set aside the findings of the National Assembly. In the latest reshuffle, she was promoted to lead the engine of government – the civil service required by the constitution to display the highest professional and ethical conduct.

Zuma has sown distrust and divisions in his Cabinet. There are those who consider themselves loyal to ANC principles and the Constitution. And there is, of course, the Saxonwold Club that he would like to expand. In the latest reshuffle, he has strengthened the Saxonwold Club. Malusi Gigaba, the new minister of finance, had close ties with the Guptas when he headed the public enterprises portfolio. Given their interests in Transnet, Eskom and Denel, we know why they got close to him.

The big challenge for all South Africans is to assist in whatever way they can to push back and minimise the harm that Zuma’s abuse of institutional power is causing to the country until he leaves office.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  cabinet reshuffle

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