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Why the actions of South Africa’s president have rendered him a lame duck

Jacob Zuma’s bungling over the finance minister position has left him politically vulnerable. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Mayhem is the only word that can describe President Jacob Zuma’s shock reversal of the appointment of almost-finance minister David van Rooyen. Markets welcomed the move to the well-known and trusted Pravin Gordhan, the former minister of finance, and the local currency jumped for joy in the minutes following the announcement.

As much as the nomination of Gordhan is to be welcomed, it poses a number of serious questions about Zuma’s fitness to hold office.

Behind the reversal

In his statement Zuma wrote that:

I received many representations to reconsider my decision. As a democratic government, we emphasise the importance of listening to the people and to respond to their views.

Zuma will indeed have had many reasons to reconsider his decision. All he had to do was open a South African newspaper or read a story on South Africa in any international newspaper. The voices were loud, clear, and spoke in unison: the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene was a colossal mistake.

But if Zuma cared about public opinion he would reverse his stance on a number of other issues as well, starting with the luxury upgrades to his private home in Nkandla.

The deeper reasons, and power shifts, within the ruling African National Congress that led to this shocking plot twist have yet to be unveiled. But even at this early stage, four points can safely be concluded.

Zuma has lost control on two fronts

First and foremost, Zuma has lost control of his administration. Assuming he asked for advice before his announcement, one of three possibilities present themselves – he was ill-advised; he chose his advisers miserably; or he simply ignored their input.

Alternatively, he is easily swayed by public opinion and rectified his mistake as soon as the public outcry reached his office.

Any of these cases would be bad and would show a lack of leadership.

Second, Zuma has lost control of his party and will be a lame duck from now on.

The term usually refers to presidents in their last year of office. For example, some commentators said US President Barack Obama was a lame duck until he managed to engineer a path-breaking nuclear deal with Iran and helped put together the historic Paris agreement on climate change.

While Obama has shown that not all outgoing presidents need to be lame ducks, Zuma’s experience shows that you can become a lame duck even if you still have plenty of time on your presidential watch.

The back and forth on the key cabinet position leaves Zuma in precisely that position.

His second-sharpest weapon as president – the nomination and redeployment of cabinet members – has been taken away, leaving him with only his sharpest weapon: helping his cronies gain positions of power within government. But if his sharpest weapon were enough to keep his party in check, van Rooyen would still be finance minister today.

Impact on the economy

Third, the government has put the South African economy in a very vulnerable position. The country has a glaring current account deficit, and is heavily dependent on the goodwill of international investors.

What this means on the monetary side is as follows: as trust in the country evaporates so do capital flows. The country’s currency plummets and the price of imports, including oil, goes up. This increases the risk of inflation, forcing the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates which in turn curtails lacklustre economic growth even further.

The country is also vulnerable on the fiscal side. South Africa, like all countries that have debt, depends on favourable ratings and benevolent investors. But if debt levels grow because of wasteful government spending, including subsidising incompetent management of state-owned entities, and using social grants as an easy way to buy votes in rural areas, investors start getting very cautious. The consequence is a downgrading of the country’s ratings which in turn raises the cost of servicing the debt.

This, sadly, is the path the country’s economy is currently on.

Fourth, Nene’s dismissal was an attack on one of South Africa’s most respected institutions, the National Treasury. It is unlikely that Zuma’s reversal means the attack has been stopped. The latest events fit into a pattern that has become prevalent under Zuma’s presidency. This includes attacking institutions if they get in his way. A case in point are attacks, big and small, levelled against the public protector, Thuli Madonsela. Actions such as these speak of a very clear and nasty language.

The #ZumaMustFall campaign

The #ZumaMustFall movement is gaining momentum. The first marches are already being organised. An online petition quickly gathered more than 100,000 votes.

It is unlikely that the re-installment of Gordhan will put the minds of South Africans at ease. Neither should it, because it is a red herring. What this week has shown is that Zuma is no longer fit for office. It has shown that he lacks a number of important characteristics that a president needs to have to lead a country. These include good judgement, foresight and economic finesse.

Many of these shortcomings were known for years. An added dimension has come into play this week: to be effective, a president needs power.

Zuma has shown himself the door. He is standing there, unsure what to do next. It is time South Africans came together and gave the old man a helping hand to exit.

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