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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Gareth van Onselen.]

How does President Jacob Zuma stay in power? This is perhaps the defining conundrum of our time. He seems, at face value, to epitomise the antithesis of good leadership.

He is compromised — legally and ethically — and has evaded a full and proper reckoning; his party and the alliance is factionalised and fragmenting; he has overseen a compendium of crises and, during his time in office, the economy has inched ever-nearer to the edge of an abyss. Yet he endures.

It would, of course, be foolish to reduce his political resilience down to one defining trait. There are many aspects to this particular feat.

For example, brutal political turnover works in his favour. He has reshuffled his executive eight times since 2009 — more than 100 changes in ministerial and deputy ministerial positions. There have been more than 120 changes in seven years of directors-general — the average career of a director-general under Zuma is less than 16 months.

There is an argument to be made, then, that Zuma thrives in chaos. The relentless merry-go-round at senior management and executive level means no one is ever comfortable and everyone’s allegiance is first and foremost to the president, for fear they will be pushed off the ride or in the hope they will be invited to join it.

But there is another aspect that has not been given much attention.

In a recent interview, former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon said: “I was told by an African National Congress (ANC) national executive (committee) member … that of the ANC national executive committee … only about nine people out of 96, or however many there are, but around 10% of them, are independent of the president’s powers of appointment for their monthly salaries.”

The national executive committee is the ANC’s highest decision-making body, responsible for carrying out “the decisions and instructions of the national conference and the national general council (NGC)”, as well as day-to-day instructions to the party.

IT COMPRISES 110 party members and 18 are ex officio (automatically appointed because of their party positions and not elected by the national conference). They include the chair and secretary of each elected ANC provincial executive committee as well as the leadership of the youth, women’s and veteran’s leagues.

The top six positions are elected separately and the remaining 80 members are voted on to the national executive committee at the party’s national conference. The committee can also co-opt five additional members.

About 60% of members — 64 of them — are beholden to Zuma for their public positions and salaries.

While the president directly appoints members of his executive, his influence is slightly diluted with regards to Parliament’s committee chairs and provincial and local government appointments; but they would all have to meet with his approval as party leader, and each position carries a significant salary.

These are supplemented by the party’s political positions, the appointment of which is also directly influenced by Zuma in his capacity as leader, such as the national spokesman and the ANC committee chairs. If these positions are included, the percentage of members of the leadership of the ANC over the whom the president wields a direct influence is closer to 70%. No directors-general serve on the national executive committee.

Significantly, of the 80 members elected on to the national executive committee at the ANC’s national conference, 59 people — or 73% — hold public positions at the president’s discretion (including 28 ministers, 11 deputy ministers and 10 parliamentary committee chairs).

Some of the few senior members not beholden to Zuma for their public salaries include Wits University honorary professor Tito Mboweni, African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Mapungubwe Institute director Joel Netshitenzhe.

These numbers are not precise. There are, and have been, several vacancies on the executive committee through death and suspension and, with the shuffling that defines the Zuma regime, one or two public positions might have changed since the last full list of the committee was made available.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Zuma wields the potential for great influence over the party’s core decision-making mechanism.

Nic Borain, a political analyst at BNP Paribas Securities SA, says: “This is a perfect example of what the academic literature calls patrimonialism and clientelist politics. If one’s income is dependent on the leader’s good favour, this is a powerful incentive not to criticise.

“Thus we have an ANC national general council where accurate and sometimes searing self-criticism is expressed about corruption, patronage, slates and personality cults, but none of it is directed at the obvious culprit because he holds the keys to more and more members’ income.”

SOME of that criticism has come from senior ANC leaders in the run-up to the party’s national general council.

Former director-general in Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, Frank Chikane, warned the party was struggling to “express internal criticism”. Another senior ANC member, Ben Turok, was not invited to the national general council and said in response: “I think that this NGC may not be as open to discussion as it ought to be.”

Borain echoes that sentiment: “I understand that the ANC’s national executive committee, when it discussed Nkandla, heard only one voice of mild criticism raised in the meeting. We saw a degree of suppressed debate in (former president Thabo) Mbeki’s national executive committee, especially as criticism about his handling of HIV/Aids raged, but we never saw this degree of unanimity or indulgence and sycophancy.”

Political hierarchy in a ruling party will inevitably compromise people who hold public office. Traditionally, they are the party’s wisest and brightest minds. But given Zuma’s proclivity to elevate patronage above service delivery, the national executive committee under his leadership takes on a different light.

Patronage has been institutionalised in the ANC under Zuma. It has turned the party’s policy of cadre deployment into a farce — not so much a policy to ensure control on the party’s behalf, but as a means to ensure the president’s power remains unfettered. Hence the devolution in quality of cadres deployed to crucial public institutions, such as Eskom.

Former DA leader Leon also said in his interview: “Someone who holds ministerial office in the ANC made the point the other day…. He said: ‘The ANC has never been weaker and President Zuma has never been stronger’.”

The facts would seem to bear that out.


South Africa at a Glance
59 620 000 (mid 2020 estimate)
3.2% y/y in July 2020 (CPI) & +1.9 y/y in July 2020 (PPI)
-51% q/q (2nd quarter of 2020)
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