• Jacob Zuma: Neopatrimonial style of government. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

  • Gwede Mantashe: Instructions ignored by Zuma appointee. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

  • Early warning: November 30 2007

  • Atul Gupta: Family influence. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

  • Dudu Myeni: Zuma admirer lands the job. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

JACOB Zuma’s presidency has taken on a particular flavour. Exposés of capricious political interference in important arms of the state such as the prosecuting authority, the police and the intelligence services have become commonplace: there is little shock factor left in the abuses of power and process committed by his friends in his name; and there is no parallel with any other SA president in the extent to which he has personally benefited from holding office.

Less often publicly aired is his devastating impact on the ANC. Under Zuma’s leadership the ANC president has become untouchable, insulated by a national executive committee (NEC) of men and women held in place by networks of patronage nobody dares undo. The senior leadership collective — a key feature of ANC organisational practice since the 1950s — has been relegated to the sidelines. Despite a succession of damaging scandals, Zuma therefore can’t be called to account.

The ANC shields him from public and parliamentary accountability in the belief that it is protecting the organisation it perceives to be under attack from a hostile media and an official opposition against its transformative programme. The ANC declined to be interviewed for this report.

But the bigger and more profound problem is that the ANC leadership collective has lost control of its president.

Over six years in power, Zuma has placed an array of acolytes in key positions, ranging from the cabinet and state-owned enterprises to the police and the national broadcaster, the SABC. Key individuals with a close relationship to Zuma are deployed as ministerial advisers in government departments. Their distinguishing feature is that they owe their loyalty to Zuma alone and use it to override government decisions and bypass the ANC.

Among outside observers — political analysts, investors who watch from afar, the business community and a growing number of citizens — the question on the lips of many is how long can the Zuma disaster go on?

It is these two mutually reinforcing trends — Zuma’s destructive hold on government and an immobilised ANC collective — and how the two unfold which holds the answer to how much longer he can survive.

How did we arrive at this point?

Zuma’s hold over government and state institutions is effected mostly through the appointment process. He uses his powers of appointment more cynically than his predecessors did, is less concerned by public criticism of his choices and is shameless about promoting his own agenda. He has extended his authority to make appointments beyond those allowed for in law.

The appointments of the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the commissioner of police, the heads of the intelligence services and directors-general of national departments are presidential decisions. The SABC board and chairman he appoints on the basis of "parliamentary advice".

Yet he has been notably active in picking individuals for the SABC and for boards of state-owned enterprises, which are under the authority of the minister of public enterprises, to be confirmed by cabinet. In the case of the SABC, he made sure the ANC committee on communications included Ellen Tshabalala on its candidates list. In the case of SA Airways he "advised" public enterprises minister Lynne Brown to retain Dudu Myeni; and at Eskom, he lobbied for Ben Ngubane to be named chairman.

The SA Revenue Service (Sars) is another example of this mode of operating. Previously, the minister of finance managed the appointment of the Sars commissioner, as set out in legislation. This time Zuma took an active role and the final announcement was made by cabinet and not the minister. Though three Sars insiders had been tipped for the job, the successful candidate, Tom Moyane, was a surprise to everyone. Moyane is a fellow ANC exile who, like Zuma, spent a good deal of time in Mozambique during the struggle against apartheid. He has little tax or finance experience and appears to have been biding his time until retirement at the state information & technology agency.

Zuma’s ministers have been complicit in expanding his powers of appointment by increasingly seeking his private approval before proposing new appointments at cabinet meetings. And the ANC has played its part. By establishing a convention that ANC subcommittees and its deployment committee have the right to a say over state hiring, all appointments have become subject to horse-trading.

A good example was the tussle over the Eskom chairmanship in December. The ANC preferred former Eskom executive and electrical engineer Pat Naidoo, while Zuma favoured his friend Ngubane. The impasse was settled by retaining the incumbent, Zola Tsotsi, despite the utility’s dismal performance under his watch.

Zuma’s appointments are also damaging because of the kind of people he chooses. They are seemingly plucked from obscurity. Police commissioner Riah Phiyega, for instance, was neither a policewoman nor accomplished in any other field; but she is known as an admirer of the president. Myeni was a schoolteacher from KwaZulu Natal who, after serving briefly on a regional water board, was catapulted to the top of the SAA board. The rationale for these appointments often emerges later — as the result of personal relationships, repayment for favours or simply a way to exert control over processes and institutions.

Also active in "advising" on appointments are the Gupta family, who are former Indian nationals and businessmen Zuma describes as his personal friends. Their influence over who gets chosen to serve on boards and management of state-owned enterprises is an open secret. The SA Communist Party, it seems, could stand it no longer when in a veiled reference to the Guptas it complained in a public statement in November that it "was concerned that private business had a direct hand in appointments into key positions within the state". But despite the embarrassing Waterkloof air force base incident (when a Gupta wedding party was allowed to land at the base), the ANC has been unable to chide its leader over his friends. Instead, Zuma has encouraged his ministers to get on with the Guptas and to take their calls.

When in 2011 the heads of three intelligence departments identified the Guptas as a threat to national security and decided to investigate the family, within 24 hours they were summoned by the intelligence minister, Siyabonga Cwele, and told to lay off. All three were subsequently offered new positions and, despite long-standing relationships of trust built with Zuma during the struggle, they left soon afterwards.

The brazenness of Zuma’s acolytes has taken the ANC and government by surprise. SAA chair Myeni openly defied an order from the minister of public enterprises to reinstate Monwabisi Kalawe, the CEO whom Myeni had unfairly suspended; SABC chair Tshabalala and chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng simply ignored ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa by refusing to stand down after being caught lying about their qualifications.

Though galled by such defiance, the ANC top leadership has been unable to do anything about it.

The reason lies in the composition of the NEC. Ahead of the Mangaung party congress in 2012, Zuma built a 70% majority, reflective of enormous ANC growth in KwaZulu Natal, and involving the majority factions in most of the smaller provinces as well as parts of the Eastern Cape. Mostly, the executive is held together by mutually reinforcing relationships of patronage. Provincial politicians with vested economic interests often owe their positions to lines of patronage both up and down the political chain.

A threat to Zuma would constitute a threat to the entire alliance and has no prospect of being entertained by a majority, no matter how compelling the motivations or the extent to which the ANC is being damaged and undermined.

Any attempt to undo the "interlocking patrimonial relations" in the NEC would be like "trying to unscramble the egg", says Nic Borain, political analyst at BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities. "The main feature of such an interlocked relationship is that it is embedded and difficult to unwind. The problem with proposing a mechanism that could dislodge Zuma, and with it the calcifying networks of patronage that spread out from him and his partners into all corners of the state and party, is the old one: who will bell the cat?"

So while it was possible to remove Thabo Mbeki when his imperial tendencies became too much for the NEC, today’s ANC is a different organisation.

The new politics of the ANC is classed as "neopatrimonial" by political scientist Tom Lodge of the University of Limerick and formerly at Wits University. The term refers to a political system legitimised by "reciprocal exchanges" between political actors and characterised by the "personalisation" of the exercise of power.

In neopatrimonial systems (Russia is a good example, says Lodge) officials use public power for private purposes, and political differences or internal competition feature large in the party not as ideological battles but as contests between groups based on personal loyalties.

Though the roots of such a trajectory were always present in the conservatism of the ANC in its early days, and later in its underground links with criminal networks, they were particularly brought to the fore by later developments, in particular, the conditions of post-1994 in which the acquisition of political office became the best route for personal wealth accumulation.

Though Lodge’s analysis implies this change in the ANC is permanent, "It has yet to become all-encompassing and does not constitute the entirety of the ANC’s internal life."

This is a significant point when looking at the ANC under Zuma. Though nobody is strong enough to act against Zuma, there are signs that a stealthy fight-back has begun.

At the ANC’s January lekgotla, at which the party looks at its programme for the year with a view to providing direction to government, Zuma and his proxies lost two key policy battles.

The first was the decision that set-top boxes for television will be manufactured with encryption software.

Though cabinet had taken a decision to this effect a year ago, Zuma effectively stymied it by replacing then communications minister Yunus Carrim with Faith Muthambi, a minister who has become known for her personal loyalty to Zuma. Muthambi had failed to implement the cabinet decision and was taken aback when ordered by the lekgotla to do so.

The reasons for blocking the decision relate to a range of business interests that have lobbied hard against it. These include ANC-aligned groupings who want a slice of the manufacturing action and big corporate interests with lots of cash to hand out.

At the lekgotla the ANC also found its voice on the restructuring of the electricity sector. Though Zuma had last year — at the urging of his energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson — promised to establish an independent system market operator, the ANC, which has ideological reasons for not wanting to dilute Eskom, has blocked it at policy level. And while the ANC’s wisdom on this matter has been debated in the context of the need to restructure the electricity sector, the decision is as much a sign of being fed-up at the bypassing of ANC policy by presidential sanction as it is ideological.

These small battles indicate that the pendulum could well swing back and that the impetus for change in the ANC will build.

For those who want to rescue the ANC, the important thing for them is to bide their time. No-one will be able to make a move for a new coalition before the 2017 national conference approaches.

At that point, as marginalised leaders and groups re-emerge, change could happen fast. The upside of this scenario is that it raises the possibility of a changing of the guard in the ANC in three years; the downside is little will change until then.

The damage that will be done to SA’s institutions and to the ANC itself by then will be more serious and put remedial action further out of reach.

For investors watching SA, there is little with which to be impressed. Structural economic reforms that are needed to revive growth have little chance of materialising.

"The view from outside the country is that there is a slow burn under Zuma," says Mark Rosenberg, New York-based Africa director for the Eurasia Group. "This administration doesn’t have the political will to reform the labour market and troubled parastatals but treasury and the SA Reserve Bank are still strong enough to ward off crisis. Zuma is too strong to be displaced by the ANC but too weak to move the country forward, so the status quo prevails until the ANC conference in 2017."

The fight-back in the ANC, when it comes, will be constrained by the changed nature of the party and its personalised and compromised politics. So even though the odds are growing that a new leadership clique may take the helm after 2017, the ability to reform the ANC will be severely curtailed.