[OPINION] Zuma, ‘destroyer-in-chief’ of the ANC

The economy is now officially in recession and, thanks to a free press, every day more emails are being leaked into the public domain which provide the murky details of alleged state capture.

Yet, despite the economic numbers looking as abysmal as they do, President Zuma survives. It is as if the president lives in a parallel universe. Last week Zuma was in Parliament presenting the Presidency’s budget vote. He did not look or sound like a president under pressure, but that is his wont. Instead, Zuma boldly defended his record in government.

The problem, however, is that Zuma comes to the podium as the leader of a party divided and as a man who has torn apart the tripartite alliance. Zuma has been the ‘destroyer-in-chief’ of the ANC. His greed and corruption have torn apart old alliances forged over decades as Cosatu and the SACP try to get to grips with allegations of state capture. There are very few places Zuma is welcome these days and he seems to retreat to the comfort and sycophancy of his KwaZulu-Natal heartland when things get politically rough.

He commands very little, if any, respect from those on the opposition benches and repeated Afrobarometer surveys have shown that citizens’ trust in the president has waned dramatically over the years. Yet, like all ‘strong men’, Zuma remains in power propped up by those who benefit from his incompetence and corruption and who themselves are mired in scandal in some way.

So Zuma already starts every speech at a distinct disadvantage. His delivery in Parliament last Wednesday was pedestrian at best. He is entirely disengaged from the content of his speeches, mouthing off ‘plans’ and promises with very little understanding of how anything might be achieved. His repetitive referencing of the National Development Plan seems near-farcical when it is unclear, even after all these years, how departments and ministries are actually developing a coordinated approach to the NDP?

But aside from the platitudinous nature of the speech, it was Zuma’s reply last Thursday, interspersed with chuckles, that probably offended the most. Here was a man whom the Constitutional Court found had breached the Constitution, who has several serious corruption allegations hanging over him, yet continues to govern with a degree of over-confidence that is staggering.

One wonders what former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan thought as Zuma responded to questions about the economy. Low growth and rising debt do not create conditions conducive to growth. Added to that, corruption and state capture undermine our ability to deal honestly with our economic challenges. There is very little in the economic numbers that suggest we can even begin to deal with the ‘triple challenge’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Zuma jokingly referenced government’s ‘9 point plan’, answering a question by DA MP David Maynier. Maynier was ‘obsessed’ with the plan Zuma said, grinning again. In fact, the reason Maynier keeps mentioning it is because Zuma could not recall what exactly the nine points were during a previous question time session. He has since made the effort to write them down and say them out loud.

The uninspiring reply wended its way to a comment about ‘radical economic transformation’, except we were referred to the empty ANC Mangaung resolutions. To add to the empty rhetoric, Zuma now refers to ‘robust’ economic transformation. Apparently ‘robust’ is ‘radical’ too. The question is how do we build this ‘capable state’ that is so necessary for the restructuring of the economy when we are drowning in a cesspool of corruption?

Zuma himself is a major stumbling block to a growing, healthy economy that in some way tries to deal with the structural injustice of the past. So when he refers to the SME Fund and the relationship he has forged with the Top 100 CEOs, it’s hard to take him seriously. How does Zuma think that relationship will continue to function now that he has betrayed the trust of business leaders who were trying to build on what Gordhan was starting to achieve after Nhlanhla Nene’s unceremonious axing?

Zuma cannot speak with any legitimacy or credibility on the economy since he has single-handedly done more to undermine and destroy the economy that any post-apartheid president. Who can now take him at his word - on anything? His shallow talk about the Mining Charter and an economy that works for all is undercut by the corruption we know is happening in the allocation of mining licenses and the application of BEE policies. Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane has a cloud hanging over him given his association with the Guptas. How can we trust him to deal with mining matters equitably and for the benefit of communities? Doubtless, the new Mining Charter will be a proxy for further corruption and enrichment of the politically connected.

But it was Zuma’s comments on state capture and unemployment that indicated one thing - his disdain for us is complete. “State capture is a big thing,” he said. And, “unemployment is man-made, not natural”.

This was the same day the Quarterly Labour Force Survey statistics were released. They paint a grim picture of an economy in crisis. Yes, crisis. South Africa’s unemployment rate is now at 27.7% (according to the narrow definition) meaning 6.6 million people are unemployed.

The president did not mention this statistic at all. The poor, after all, are mere chattel in the pursuit of his personal wealth.

It is nigh impossible to engage with Zuma and the now vacuous National Treasury on the deep questions of economic transformation and how to meet our country’s challenges. His responses are glib, shallow and an insult to our collective intelligence. His chuckle is arrogance writ-large. And his parliamentary performance was nothing short of abysmal.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february