Zuma's health: What if he's too ill to lead?

2014-06-19 12:20
President Jacob Zuma gives the State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town. (Sumaya Hisham, Pool, AP)

President Jacob Zuma gives the State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town. (Sumaya Hisham, Pool, AP)

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Cape Town - Much has been made of President Jacob Zuma's unsteady appearance and obvious weight loss at the State of the Nation address – which followed a short stay in hospital and reports of overtiredness.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the president went in for a routine health check and like all senior members of the party, simply needed a bit of time off to “re-energise”.

Health is often a closely guarded secret in politics but it is up to Zuma if he rules the country in sickness and in health?

‘Silent on sick leave’

Anyone working five days a week is entitled to 30 days sick leave every three years in South Africa, but there are no special rules for the president.

Constitutional law scholar Professor Pierre de Vos from the University of Cape Town said: “I am afraid the Constitution and the law is silent on sick leave for the president.”

That said, in the absence of any specific guidelines for the presidency, Zuma can take advantage of the Ministerial Handbook.

This shows rather more lenience than for the average worker. It states: “Members may take annual, vacation, maternity, sick and other leave, as may be necessary, after consultation with the President or Premier or Leader of Government Business, as the case may be.”

In which case, it’s up to Zuma how many sick days he takes.

Removal men

However, as De Vos points out, under the Constitution the president can be removed for ill-health.

An ad hoc committee of the National Assembly would have to make a factual finding that the president is so ill that he had become incapacitated.

Then, the National Assembly would have to vote on the removal of president.

Under the Constitution, if the president is unable to fulfil his duties, the deputy president would act as president.

But according to Prof de Vos: “This is not going to happen unless the ANC decides that Zuma is too sick to continue and he refuses to resign or is unable to resign due to illness, in which case it will instruct its MP’s to support such a motion.”

Certainly, as Professor Anthony Butler, head of politics at the University of Cape Town, points out, there are lots of ministers for Zuma to share his workload with.

“There are very few demanding, necessary roles – even parliamentary question time in the National Assembly is very carefully orchestrated. He knows the questions beforehand. It’s not a job where he is exposed all the time.”

Secret illnesses

Indeed, history records many presidents who have kept their illnesses on the down low while their ministers run the show.

The most serious case of incapacity in a head of state in the last century was that of US president Woodrow Wilson, according to the British politician Lord David Owen.

Wilson suffered complete paralysis of the left side of his body after having a stroke in 1919 during his second term as president. He later developed serious illnesses which he did not face up to.

In a paper published by Oxford Journals, Owen wrote: “There is little doubt that Wilson should have stepped down at least for a period of time from October, until it was clear whether or not he was going to recover. Had he done so, it might have been possible to persuade Congress to ratify the Treaty establishing the League of Nations, which might have helped stop World War II.”

Owen argues that Wilson’s wife and doctor gave a “false image” of a working president. “As a result his wife is often spoken of as America's only woman President and his doctor has been much criticized for putting his patient before the needs of the country,” he wrote.

It wouldn’t be the first false image. America’s first president George Washington almost died of pneumonia in 1790 and a century later in 1893 Glover Cleveland disappeared from public view for a week while undergoing secret cancer surgery.

Mysterious disappearance

Today attitudes to cancer have changed, Owen argues – with “much greater openness” in the last few decades. In July 1985 for example, Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Stage B cancer of the colon – which now has a 70% chance of a five-year survival. 

But dying of natural causes while in office is not that common –  certainly in the US only four presidents have died in office – the last being Franklin D Roosevelt in 1945. After years of ill-health, Roosevelt died from a cerebral stroke.

Prior to 1994 in South Africa, only one Prime Minister died in office of natural causes – Johannes Strijdom. During his last year in office, Strijdom died after long terms of absence due to ill health – thought to be cancer.

Others make a more mysterious exit. Australia’s Harold Holt was an MP for 32 years, but after just 22 months as Prime Minister, in December 1967 he went for a swim on a beach in south east Australia and never returned.

Meanwhile, the death of Malawi's former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, was covered up for two days in a bid to prevent his vice president, Joyce Banda, from ascending to power.

A commission of inquiry found that Mutharika suffered cardiac arrest on 5 April 2012 and was pronounced dead by the time he arrived at a local hospital, but cabinet ministers including his younger brother, Peter (now Malawi's president), had his body flown to South Africa for "medical treatment" while they tried to circumvent the constitution in order to prevent Banda becoming president. They were later charged with treason.


Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  politics

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