Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


Post-elections SA
Peter Van der Merwe
Published: 07-JUN-04

After all the excitement of the past couple of months - what with elections, inaugurations and winning the bid to host the 2010 Football World Cup - it's almost reassuring to see that it's business as usual on the southernmost tip of the continent. Relieved of the burden of having to press the flesh with hordes of ululating peasants and grin ingratiatingly for press cameras, President Thabo Mbeki has returned to his ivory tower, where he has resumed his customary demeanour of haughty aloofness.

Gone is the charismatic and approachable "man of the people" persona, which charmed friend and foe alike before the elections. It was all just another political charade.

The announcement of Mr Mbeki's new cabinet was the first sign that the old arrogance was seeping back. Make no mistake, it's a well-balanced cabinet, with a clear focus on gender equality, service delivery and continuity. South Africa now has more women in government than most other countries (22, as opposed to 27 men), and there are several inspired choices, like former ANC chief spook Ronnie Kasrils to the Intelligence portfolio and the redeployment of strongman sports minister Ngconde Balfour to Correctional Services.

But several of Mbeki's cabinet choices showed an astonishing disregard for what the people want. He ruthlessly dispatched Inkatha Freedom Party head Mangosuthu Buthelezi - ostensibly for being a cantankerous old curmudgeon - but retained his deputy, Jacob Zuma, who has been liberally splattered with the fall-out from the country's graft-ridden arms deal.

Even more bizarre was the choice of the leader of the rapidly-waning New National Party, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, to the Environment Affairs and Tourism portfolio. The voters had already made it clear what they thought of Van Schalkwyk and his party, by giving him a princely two percent of the national vote.

Installing the man in his cabinet, then, suggests that Mbeki doesn't give a hoot what the electorate thinks. If that's the case, why even bother with the trouble and expense of a poll at all?

Having ensured he had looked after himself, Van Schalkwyk promptly did what any good politician would do: he filled his ministry with his NNP cronies. Some things never change.

Perhaps the most arrogant choice of all, though, was to retain controversial Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has provided appalling leadership on the critical HIV/Aids issue.

Most commentators agree that it would have been politically sensible to move her elsewhere - but Mbeki is clearly the kind of man who does not like to be seen to be making concessions to the media or public opinion.

This worrying sense of arrogance within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) surfaced again through its decision to break with tradition and permanently take over the chair of parliament's public accounts committee.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) is seen as one of the legislature's most important overseeing instruments to keep government spending in check.

Except for a short while in 2002, the ANC has so far pandered to the Commonwealth convention that an opposition party representative chair the committee. Now, says the ruling party, all committees are to be chaired by the ANC.

Former Scopa chair Gavin Woods says the decision shows a "sad" ignorance of what "constitutes best and acceptable practice in most modern democracies in the world". Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip, Douglas Gibson, is simply scathing about the ANC's new appointment, Vincent Smith: "There is nothing wrong with Mr Smith as a person - he is a loyal ANC apparatchik. He will take his instructions � and will ensure that embarrassing revelations by the auditor-general are minimised or hidden."

Perhaps that's putting it a little harshly. The reality is that the ANC will be judged on its ability to deliver services in the next four years, and it's early days yet.

A critical part of that service delivery will be putting in place infrastructure for the 2010 World Cup, including the provision of a more robust transport system and a tourism backbone which can handle the literally millions of visitors who will converge on the country for the event.

SA is euphoric at the prospect of hosting the event, and sales of vuvuzelas, the peculiar plastic trumpets long favoured by local soccer fans, are through the roof. Is that a strange honking sound I hear coming from the presidential wing at the Union Buildings?

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