If the reputation of the party is harmed from within, he has to act swiftly to put it to rights’

Here is an excerpt of a report from a weekend newspaper:

“The government has been in crisis in court over the delivery of 17million social grants, for a contract that should never have been contemplated. The president placed a new football in front of the leader of the opposition and sent the goalkeeper home. And the opposition leader failed to score.”

Actually, let me confess, I panel-beat this quotation, which originally appeared in the Financial Times on Saturday. The original referred to the lamentably ineffective leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and the potential own goal provided by prime minister Theresa May and her ever-changing policy on national health insurance. Corbyn is incapable of putting it in the net. Even when he faces no opposition.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of South Africa’s opposition, a dab hand at football, gave a robust account of himself when he confronted President Jacob Zuma in parliament. But the normally leaden-footed Zuma showed surprising spark and animation, perhaps because of the unforced error the DA has gifted to its opponents.

Before interrogating the distraction, let me refer to the main event, or a series of them, which in an annus horribilis for the ANC, means last week was perhaps their worst to date, and we are only in the first quarter of the year. Perhaps disposing of the appeal by Zuma on the judicially mandated reinstatement of his criminal prosecution will be the next crisis to engulf president, party, government and the country itself.

Two court cases last week were double blows against maladministration and a reanimation of the constitutional and human rights imperatives which were — at least theoretically — celebrated in yesterday’s Human Rights Day holiday.
The notorious and botched contract of the social security agency (Sassa) with the now equally notorious Cash Paymaster Services had previously been declared invalid by the Constitutional Court.

It landed up in the court again, because the responsible minister had, in the words of the exquisitely named Jonathan Witt, done the following in the two-plus years since the contract was declared invalid: “Go to court. Lose. Get (two) years to fix. Sit on hands. Await crisis. Sign new deal with friends. Profit.” In a Twitter-obsessed country and world, not a bad summation.
Last week the court heaped its opprobrium on the minister, Bathabile Dlamini. Next week she has to convince it why she should not personally pay the costs for this fiasco.

The other court case which judged against a minister who failed to apply his mind to his core function happened on Friday. Police Minister Nathi Nhleko was slammed by the Gauteng North High Court for “completely ignoring and brushing aside two court judgments that found that Berning Ntlemeza lacked integrity and honesty when he appointed him head of the Hawks”.

No worries here, though. The state, armed with the taxpayers’ purse, will appeal this seemingly bulletproof judgment unto infinity, or at least the next year or so, which will allow the state-capturers to continue on their present course.

Just days after the Constitutional Court judgment, the office of the chief justice was burgled and 15 computers stolen. Even after the alarm was triggered, there was no security interdiction. Just as there is no proof of any state involvement, there is, as radio host John Maytham opined, the fact that so many believe this was no ordinary burglary.

With all these multiple crises, never has the opposition had a better moment to score goals in the unguarded net of a wayward government. An entity which has forgotten, overridden or is simply blind to its core constitutional promises of service delivery, honest administration and direct accountability. The fact that the Speaker of parliament blocks this accountability, and the governing party caucus — with a few recent and heroic exceptions — goes along, means the courts increasingly have to step into this minefield. In the long run it is not sustainable; in the short run it is all we have.

But, because of a Twitter war ignited by Helen Zille’s perceived defence of colonialism, the DA is deflected from its core business. Now every time it addresses matters gripping the country and its citizens, its opponents and the politically correct will change the subject. And the worst, and even the best, in the commentating class will seize on the apparent, but essentially flawed, equivalence between unaccountable government on the one hand, and an opposition party, if the party does not hold to highest account those responsible for major errors of judgment.

It is, I know well, lonely to be the leader. But a political leader is the custodian of the brand of his or her party. He has to keep his party united and protect its brand at all costs. If the reputation of the party is harmed from within, he has to act swiftly to put it to rights. No easy task, but then only the difficult ones get sent to the leader’s office to sort out. Zuma is a classic case of not applying any of these rules himself. Perhaps that explains why all SA’s major cities, bar Durban, are in opposition hands. Now Maimane faces this test.

Meanwhile, in the wider world, the Twitter-happy Donald Trump could ramp up a confrontation with China over North Korea. There is the real prospect of conflict on the Korean Peninsula which would draw in South Korea, China and Japan.
A wise US policymaker once called wayward North Korea “the land of lousy options”. Maimane will understand that only too well in a local context.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA