President Jacob Zuma’s finest agricultural quality appears to be the cultivation of the semiliterate goatherd-cum-good image – all the way to a second term in the Union Buildings.

It is a construct that is as appealing to the rural marginalised as it is open to the ridicule of the chattering classes and mainstream media swilling on prejudice. And it conveniently diverts attention from the suggestion that he is spookier than a naked J Edgar Hoover clutching three quarts of Diazinon under a white bedsheet with a shower on his head.

While the mainstream media continue to focus, like a coke-fuelled cameraman, on Zuma’s man boobs when he dons his skimpy leopard skin, very little attention is wasted on his mind, the inner workings of which – sharpened by the “stone that grinds”, Mbokodo, the exiled ANC’s department of national intelligence and security, where he was head of counterintelligence – are demonstrably reflected in his recent Cabinet appointments.

Zuma’s modus operandi is discernable: promote politicians from areas that have been your traditional strongholds, like KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, to ensure constituencies are happy. But ensure that they have demonstrated sufficient loyalty and are not the main powerbrokers from these areas and do not have too large a support base – so that they remain beholden to you for their appointments.

From Zuma’s previous Cabinet, this was most obvious in Siyabonga Cwele’s appointment as minister of state security. The personable but pliable Cwele had no ANC constituency in the KZN South Coast to threaten to take away from Zuma in any internecine party battle and very little intelligence experience or contacts. This, combined with his indebtedness, allowed South Africa’s spooks to be under the de facto control of the president and his lieutenants.

Similarly, the appointment of Cwele’s successor, David Mahlobo, ticks those very same boxes. From Mpumalanga, a province that has demonstrated unconditional loyalty to Zuma within the ANC, Mahlobo is no powerbroker in the mould of the province’s premier and ANC chairperson, David Mabuza, who ensures grassroots support and voting banks at ANC conferences for the president.

Very little is known about Mahlobo’s intelligence credentials – perhaps because he has none. The former head of the provincial department of co-operative affairs is known to be close to Mabuza, though.

Likewise, former labour director general Nkosinathi Nhleko, who didn’t feature on the ANC’s original MPs list, was appointed to head the police ministry.

From KZN, Nhleko has strong connections to provincial structures in the ANC, but not widespread grassroots support among any of the factions likely to start baring their teeth as the party starts readying itself for the local government elections in 2016 – and the government jobs and systems of patronage that avail themselves at this time.

Nhleko has served as the KwaZulu-Natal regional commissioner for correctional services, has been chairman of the portfolio committee on public service and administration, ANC chief whip, chairman of the ANC caucus in Parliament, and was a member of the Judicial Services Commission. Nhleko also headed the specialised anti-corruption unit in the public service commission before joining the department as director general in 2011.

His relationship with Number One was solidified after Zuma was fired as deputy president of South Africa in 2005 and battled fraud and corruption charges. Nhleko was one of a large contingent of ANC leaders from KZN who mobilised around Zuma’s 100% campaign at the time, and while Nhleko’s appointment is set to, on the surface, keep the province’s backers happy, it also ensures another appointment that will not pose any serious threats to Zuma’s hegemony in either government or the ANC.

Payback – as opposed to paying it forward – is another favourite methodology for Zuma in appointing a Cabinet that consolidates his power in a manner that would have made the Borgia pope Alexander VI’s papacy, synonymous with nepotism and libertinism, appear flaccid in comparison.

Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela, who, since 2005, has done more cartwheels for Zuma than a five-year-old Chinese gymnast on a Red Bull rush, will take his cheerleader routine to the Union Buildings, where he will serve as deputy minister in the presidency.

Another Zuma hard-nut pompom girl and ANCYL national convenor, Mzwandile Masina, was rewarded for coming to the president’s defence with a frequency apparently only otherwise seen when the latter drops his pants, with a deputy minister’s salary at the department of trade and industry.

Masina is no one-trick cheerleader, though. His work in the field of linguistics, sadly, has gone woefully underreported by the counterrevolutionary press.

Reflecting Zuma’s Derridean penchant for deconstruction, Masina made, quite possibly, the most important breakthrough in the field of linguistics since Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory when he told National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim to “fuck off!” and, possibly, maybe, well actually, according to a later statement, to “fork off!”

“Look, you see, our view is very clear. Irvin Jim must fuck off if need be, as a person, because he can’t want to drag structures of the movement, including Numsa, in his nonsense,” said Masina in quite possibly one of the most erudite tracts since Edward Said’s Orientalism.

“Because this is one person who’s got [a] personal vendetta against the president [Zuma] and he continues to embarrass us every day. It is time for him to fuck off. He’s free to do so.”

In a statement, perhaps penned by this intellectual giant, the ANCYL “note[d] the public discomfort and outcry with regards to the pronouncement of ‘fork off’ by ANCYL convenor, comrade Mzwandile Masina”. “What comrade Masina said means Jim must ‘go a separate way; leave’. It is not vulgar language or a swear word.”

Such intellectual brilliance has been absent from Cabinet since the likes of Kader Asmal and Thabo Mbeki left, to be replaced by, ahem, Malusi Gigaba and some early 20th-century cutlery as the luminaries of Zuma’s previous think tank.

Masina will not be out of place, and may in fact outshine the set of Edward VII silver fruit-serving spoons that have so far dominated Cabinet discussions over the past five years with their Bible-based reading of Slavoj Žižek.

Faith Muthambi, a relatively low-profile parliamentary backbencher, has been vaulted to the cushier seats upfront with her appointment as communications minister in a move that will both reduce the threat of hemorrhoids and thank her for her sterling work on the parliamentary ad hoc committee on the Public Protector’s investigation into the R246-million Nkandla scandal.

Muthambi was the ANC whip on Parliament’s communications portfolio committee, but her real forte – and that of the six other MPs on the Nkandla committee – was squashing themselves and deferring Thuli Madonsela’s report to the new Parliament. It was a move that sidestepped any potential embarrassment for Zuma in the campaign trail leading up to May’s elections.

Judging by Muthambi’s speech at the 2013 Government Communication and Information System budget vote, she is a big fan of a free press – which must be a relief for the courageous investigative journalists at the SABC, who have broken important exposés like… ahem.

Muthambi will be looking to encourage the media to freely and unquestioningly publish what government tells them: “Media continues to publish negative news on government, disregarding the good service delivery record of government. The media continues to distort and ignore information provided by government in a transparent and accountable manner,” she said.

Then, there are the kanga-man, body-swerve appointments: When Zuma strenuously suggests he will have little patience other than for transparent, accountable and responsive ministers before appointing people who have failed miserably in this regard.

It’s a swerve that South Africans are used to but, like a Leo Messi dribble, are unable to do anything about.

The president stated quite clearly in his inauguration speech that he will fire underperforming ministers.

There was no suggestion that former police minister Nathi Mthethwa was underperforming when police killed activist Andries Tatane at close range and in front of television cameras during a protest in Ficksburg in April 2011, or when they killed 34 striking miners at Marikana on August 16 2012.

Mthethwa kept a Cabinet position by being moved to arts and culture.

Likewise, Cwele’s overseeing of the disintegration of the state security department into factions fighting political battles, as well as his sheer oblivion to the fact that his wife at the time was busy smuggling cocaine into the country, was deemed relatively decent performance as he too kept his Cabinet position with a move to telecommunications and postal services.

Likewise, with two Public Protector reports against her for maladministration and a litany of other allegations constantly dogging her, Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s tenure as agriculture and fisheries was deemed successful enough by Zuma for her to escape a sacking; she was instead shifted to energy.

Rather than suggesting that Zuma has no clue what he is doing, the president’s Cabinet appointments of compromised individuals and others beholden to him suggests quite the contrary. He’s a very clever man intent on a Cabinet completely under his thumb.

 

Photo Credit: Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town in 2009 by Eric Miller

 

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