No two recent events better illustrate the poverty of political leadership in South Africa than the reinstatement of Lt-Gen Richard Mdluli as the police’s crime intelligence head despite a raft of charges and allegations around him, and the casual way in which the African National Congress (ANC) and labour federation Cosatu last week "agreed" to delay e-tolling in Gauteng for a month while government lawyers were arguing in court that such a delay would be a disaster.
This is President Jacob Zuma 's strange republic at work, a place where politics trumps principle, the reputations of the state and its officers are of little account and where no price is too high to pay for the re-election of Mr Zuma as head of his party this year and of the country in 2014.
Is the president laughing at us? The police force leadership is in tatters as his man, Lt-Gen Mdluli, acquires new powers at a dizzying speed - one day it is control over VIP protection (all the police who guard ministers and can thus tell him who they’ve been seeing), the next he becomes the only policeman in the land able to sanction a wire tap. South Africa’s credit rating is being directly threatened by Mr Zuma's leadership on the Sanral issue. He must have sanctioned the party-union meeting despite knowing his finance minister would be left humiliated by any decision to delay the start of e-tolling.
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It was entirely predictable that Cosatu’s political star would rise this year, after the ANC Youth League’s falling out with the party’s leadership.
Without Cosatu’s backing Mr Zuma has little chance of being re-elected at the ANC’s conference at Mangaung in December. And, if he loses his grip on the levers of power, the odds are that the fraud and corruption charges that were controversially withdrawn shortly before the 2009 election that elevated him to the Presidency, could be reinstated.
Mr Zuma is acutely aware of how much he needs Cosatu. More important, Cosatu’s wily general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, knows it too. That is why, in contrast to 2007 when the union federation threw its weight behind Mr Zuma as part of a successful effort to oust Thabo Mbeki as ANC president at Polokwane, it now refuses to pin its colours to the mast during the buildup to Mangaung.
Cosatu felt let down by the Zuma administration after the much-debated "lurch to the left" at Polokwane was limited by the practicalities of governance, Mr Zuma’s need to placate a range of constituencies with contradictory demands, and intense lobbying by the youth league as representative of the party’s growing African nationalist faction. Cosatu is not about to make the same mistake twice - Mr Zuma is going to have to deliver the goods before he gets paid off this time.
This, of course, is how politics works the world over. But the fact that it is not unusual does not mean its profoundly negative economic, political and constitutional consequences should not be exposed. And, such political expediency cannot be allowed to legitimise a cynical abuse of state institutions for party or individual benefit. There is, unfortunately, mounting evidence of both occurring in South Africa at present.
The government’s botched implementation of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project provided Cosatu with an ideal opportunity to flex its muscles. Since public transport was excluded from the e-tolling system, the vast majority of the revenue that would have been collected would have come from businesses and the wealthier 40% of Gauteng’s population, not predominantly from the "workers" Cosatu counts as its constituency.
Nevertheless, the toll road concept is unpopular across class groups in Gauteng, and just days before the e-toll gantries were scheduled to go live on May 1, Cosatu strong-armed the ANC into "discussions" on the issue with the threat of a national strike. With not even a pretence of differentiating between party and state, the ANC caved in and announced that the launch would be delayed by a month for further consultation.
That the high court granted an urgent interdict against the implementation of the system subject to a full review only hours later, does not change the fact that the ANC blinked first. Even as state lawyers were arguing that delaying it would be financially disastrous, the party was glibly humiliating Pravin Gordhan by elevating the political interests of one of its factions above the Treasury’s standing.
Similarly, while it is abundantly clear that the inflexibility of the labour market is preventing businesses from hiring more young people in particular, this does not suit Cosatu’s agenda of defending existing workers’ rights at all costs. Hence its loud opposition to the proposed labour law amendments that are now before Parliament.
It emerged earlier in the week that another cozy "discussion" with the ANC has resulted in agreement that clauses requiring that ballots be held before strikes can begin, and expanding the list of essential service work categories whose right to strike is limited, will be scrapped. If this is endorsed by ANC MPs it will make a complete mockery of the long negotiation process recently in the National Economic Development and Labour Council.
The question should be asked: who runs this country? The democratically elected government, a particular faction of the ruling party, or Cosatu? Or is it the small group of securocrats Mr Zuma has surrounded himself with in his desperate bid to keep out of the courts?
The vicious power struggle that is playing out at present between police management, crime intelligence and the prosecuting authorities is a chilling reminder that the abuse of state institutions that was ostensibly Cosatu’s prime motivation for removing Mr Mbeki, has got worse, not better, under Mr Zuma.
The manner in which investigations into the alleged criminal activities of Lt-Gen Mdluli have repeatedly been stymied, and those trying to follow due process have been undermined, points to political intervention at the highest level. The situation has become untenable - a prosecutor has been shot at; the very future of the rule of law and democratic accountability is at stake.
Yet Lt-Gen Mdluli has not only been reinstated to his powerful position, but it emerges he has been handed sole responsibility for the police’s covert phone-tapping activities. It was just such an intelligence tape that was used - almost certainly illegally - by Mr Zuma’s lawyers to persuade prosecutors to drop the corruption charges he faced.
The flagrant disregard for the constitutional safeguards that are supposed to check individual power in our democracy has got to stop before irreparable damage is done.
But it is clear it won’t be Mr Zuma who does the stopping. Why do other senior ANC leaders sit on their hands while the freedom they fought for is sacrificed to save one man’s skin?
Like Cosatu, they are apparently hedging their bets as they manoeuvre in preparation for the showdown at the end of the year. But by then it could be too late for them and South Africa. They have a tiger by the tail and will have to be extremely agile if they wish to avoid being eaten as soon as they have outlived their usefulness.