Ail to the Chief

2014-06-06 16:37

Both the African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa’s Presidency issued rather revealing statements on Friday, June 6th 2014. They both stated that President Jacob Zuma needs to rest and, as such, would be taking a few days leave. The justification for this was that the President had just gone through a gruelling re-election campaign and transition process. They suggested that our Commander-in-Chief needed to rest before the demanding Cabinet lekgotla at which Zuma would brief his bloated Cabinet and the Premiers on what tasks lay ahead.

The statement may have been innocuous enough but it seems to reveal more about the President’s state of health, and governance within the country, than both Zizi Kodwa and Mac Maharaj may have cared to reveal.

Firstly, the fact that the statement first came from the ANC, and not the Presidency, is telling. While Jacob Zuma may be President of both the party and the Republic, the ANC has no say over when he should get, or take, leave. In terms of Section 87 of the Constitution, when the President is elected to office by the National Assembly, they give up their seat in Parliament. This means that they, technically, give up their responsibility to the party and, so too, the party loses their hold over them. That the President’s decision is made, and communicated, from Luthuli House indicates just how much respect Zuma, and the ANC, has for the separation of powers. This also, interestingly, provides insight on how Zuma’s second term may pan out: more decision-making will happen within the party than within a distinct presidential administration.

Of course, this would come as no surprise to casual observers of the ANC. Its political ideology colours its operations: it seeks to centralise power and remove any distinction between party and state as it seeks to accumulate all-out power. But, ironically, this tactic also works in Zuma’s favour: in as much as the party may seek to exercise greater control over Zuma, by ceding greater control to the ANC, Zuma makes them culpable in whatever happens during his tenure. Thought this may be bad from a constitutional perspective, politically, for Zuma at least, it is a masterstroke.

Secondly, if President Zuma’s health is of concern then it is not a matter for the party only. Zuma’s health, admittedly, affects the organisation’s interests but it also affects the Republic’s. And as a matter of consequence, anything which affects the Republic takes precedence. He is, after all, our Number 1. If Zuma’s health is so poor that he cannot handle the campaign and the transition, and that he needs to take a few days’ rest, it brings into question his fitness for office.

Will it be the case that Zuma will cede more control to Cyril Ramaphosa, his deputy? If he does so, is such an arrangement constitutionally permissible? Can it be sustainable for Zuma to remain a titular President while Ramaphosa, and other powerful Ministers within the Cabinet, takes more responsibility for day-to-day government operations? Should Zuma be retained in this situation, especially considering that we pay so much to keep him, and his family, in place?

While the private healthcare of a public official may, usually, be excluded from public scrutiny, this cannot be the case with the President. Of course, minor health matters, such as whether his teeth are decaying or whether he has an ingrown toenail, is interesting to the public but is not of public interest. These things, which are minor concerns, have little impact on his ability to hold the country’s highest office. Anything more serious than that, such as being unable to cope with the rigours of office and needing to take ‘rest,’ raise sufficient concern that the President’s office should be more candid with us, as the public, as to what plagues the President. It is not merely for symbolism that President Obama’s health records are, for example, declared publicly to the extent that they affect his capacity to hold office.

The former issue is not a new concern. It bears noting, however, given that this is taking place for it reaffirms the fears that constitutionalists have: that the ANC in government disregards, almost entirely, the limitations that is placed on its power. This has already manifested in significant issues of governance and will undoubtedly do so in the future. The danger with this latter precedent is, of course, that we blur the distinction between what is private and what is public for public figures. But, for as long as the test remains that disclosure is warranted in circumstances where the health concern affects their ability to hold office, then that is fair game. After all, wouldn’t you want to know if the captain of the ship is suffering from a health issue that prevents him from seeing the iceberg on the horizon? Come what may, palace watchers should keep on the lookout. The second term has only just started but the fun has already begun.

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