Zuma and his cabinet

-By Judith February – South Africans’ capacity for magnanimity has been well-displayed these past weeks. Jacob Zuma is our President. Despite the cloud of corruption which will continue to hang over his head despite occupying the highest office, we, the people, have a responsibility not only to demand accountability but to put our shoulders to the wheel. In Zapiro-speak, the shower-head has been suspended. Temporarily.

The cabinet announced last week by President Zuma is a mixture of the good and the bad, predictably.  The ‘Big Idea’ of the Zuma presidency seems to be the new Economics team with a fresh Economic  Development ministry and National Planning Commission (NPC). One wants to call Gordhan, Patel and Davies a really smart triumvirate but there is a fourth member, Trevor Manuel, as head of the NPC who dare not be discounted. Nor should the ambitious Collins Chabane, minister in the Presidency be discounted. So, one is looking at the prospect of either entrepy, to borrow the scientific term, or an orderly collaboration by these individuals, presided over by a President Zuma, who is able to be decisive when he needs to be. Whether this can happen remains to be seen. It will doubtless be a test of Zuma’s leadership skills, holding together a spirited group of individuals with different viewpoints and ways of working.

It is a rather exciting and interesting prospect to have people at the helm of economic decision-making who have different ideas about how to do things. A little bit of studied unorthodoxy might be what we need. Certainly, the rest of the world has had to think outside the box in the response to the global financial crisis.

The cabinet is larger and there are some who missed the cut and others whose appointments are questionable but overall, it represents a delicate balancing act. A raised eye-brow must go to Angie Motshekga as minister of basic Education and Training. Motshekga, a former MEC for Education in Gauteng did not cover herself in glory there and allegations of conflicts of interest don’t help to recommend her. The other notable disappointment is the shifting of the old survivor, former Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Scalkwyk to the newly cordoned off Tourism ministry. Van Schalkwyk is a smart politician who has learnt the hard art of survival against the odds. More importantly, though, he was set to attend the Copenhagen climate change summit later this year. His knowledge and leadership on the subject has been documented in many places. Sustainability must be on this government’s agenda, not as something ‘separate’ or ‘apart’ from other ministries but intrinsically vinter-linked in any future planning and policy responses to both poverty and inequality. For it is the poor who suffer most as a result of unsustainable business practices and policy choices.  Hopefully Van Schalkwyk will still be in a position to play a role in the Copenhagen debate. The Zuma administration needs to show quite clearly that its focus inward will not come to mark this country as parochial when it comes to the Big Debates happening in the rest of the world. The debate on sustainability is one of those Big Debates and the largest economy in Africa should be a powerful, informed voice on such matters.

Choosing a cabinet was tricky but one suspects that the more complex task which must be completed sooner rather than later is clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, specifically as regards Directors-General, spokespersons and newly created ministries. There seem to be too many gaps and not sufficient professionalism surrounding who says what on behalf of government at the moment. The crucial positions of Presidential spokesperson and Director-General in the Presidency need to be filled.
Zizi Kodwa (with Fabiani peak-cap) appears to have taken on the ad-hoc role of President Zuma’s spokesperson, though he is referred to mostly as an ‘aide’. Whether Kodwa will continue in this position, remains to be seen. He has been adequate thus far but probably lacks the all-round diplomacy and nous required for the job. Clearly, unlike his predecessor, Jacob Zuma is not going to be a President with an eye for detail.

Whoever he appoints to speak on his behalf will therefore need to be thoughtful and will need to have a grasp of detail and policy. That’s a tall order and one can argue that even President Obama has not got it 100% right in his appointment of White House spokesperson, Robert Gates. But for Zuma, it will be axiomatic if he is to succeed and deal with the media in a way which does not give rise to obfuscation and a lack of confidence.

The past week for instance has not been an easy one. President Zuma has been strangely quiet while the taxi operators call for action, residents in South Johannesburg go on the rampage against poor service delivery and the VODACOM listing is temporarily suspended. What are his thoughts on these matters?  We don’t know enough about Zuma the President yet to know how he will deal with conflicting and entrenched interests or what his thoughts are on the sorts of issues which something like the VODACOM listing throws up. Thabo Mbeki spoke to us through obscure online letters.

Zuma will not be doing that, that much is certain. So, we wait and see what Zuma’s modus will be, whether he leads or follows and what footprint he is likely to leave by 2014.

This article first appeared in the Cape Times, Thursday, 21st May 2009.


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