Loyalty over experience: Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump

Every new president must face the task of choosing a new cabinet. As Donald Trump struggled to fill his appointments, I was reminded of another foreign leader; Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, whom I had the opportunity to observe when I spent five months in South Africa this fall.

In South Africa, the president is elected by the Parliament, and in turn the political party  that controls the Parliament chooses the president. Since the first free election after Apartheid ended in 1994, the African National Congress or ANC has controlled both the Parliament and presidency. The current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was first elected in 2009. Since then, Zuma has become increasingly unpopular with the South African people and his own party. As the ANC loses some of their popularity, some party members have started to call for the president’s removal. Zuma has been able to maintain a firm grasp on his power because he has replaced his lead party and cabinet members with people who are loyal to him.

Trump’s cabinet reflects a rather Zuma-like approach to choosing how he filled those positions. Instead of picking the most qualified experts in each department, Trump choose the people most loyal to him. Take for example Rex Tillerson, the current Secretary of State. Before Trump’s presidency, Tillerson was a CEO at Exxon and Mobil and worked solely in the oil business since he graduated from college. Trump has claimed that he chose Tillerson due to his expertise working with foreign government, but in reality Tillerson was chosen due to his loyalties. Like many of Trump’s cabinet picks, Tillerson was mainly a businessman who never had a career in Washington until Trump picked him for a cabinet position. These cabinet members owe their political careers to Trump and have strong loyalties to him. This leads to unqualified cabinet members who cannot effectively do their jobs.  

In 2015, Zuma fired his previous finance minister and replaced him with David van Rooyen, who had almost no experience in finance. South African investors had never heard of van Rooyen, and almost immediately the South African currency, the Rand, dropped 5.4 percent against the dollar as a result of his appointment. Although Zuma gave no reason for firing his previous finance minister, it has become clear that Zuma is trying to keep his cabinet full of members loyal only to him. At the same time, as head of the ANC, Zuma has the power to distill fear into his party. If members do not support him they can be kicked out of the cabinet or face harsh retaliation. This is where the parallels between Zuma and Trump end.

Trump is not head of the Republican Party and is generally considered a Washington outsider. He does not have the power or knowledge to be able to control the Republican party like Zuma. Right now, Trump and the Republican Party have their interests inline creating a somewhat favorable relationship for the two. However this relationship has already been endangered as many Republican Congress members refused to pass Trump’s healthcare bill. The minute that Trump’s interests step out of line with the Republican Party’s, they will drop him. Unfortunately, since Zuma replaced the leading members of his party with people loyal to him, the ANC has been unable to due this to Zuma.

 Since the US President is not elected by Congress, it is unlikely that Trump could ever assert his control over the presidency the way Zuma has. There is a chance that South Africa and the ANC could dispel Zuma from the presidency. South Africans are increasingly losing favor for the ANC as it is now seen as Zuma’s party. On April 12, around 800,000 protesters took to the streets to protest Zuma on his on birthday. Some members of his party are starting to worry that the ANC will lose their majority.

The United States can learn a valuable lesson from South Africa. Although it is easiest to allow the parties to govern themselves, it is important for voters to hold them accountable for their actions so one person cannot hold the government hostage.

Photo courtesy of Businesslive.co.za

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