Is Jacob Zuma “An Appropriate President” for South Africa

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 30th, 2012
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South African President Jacob Zuma attends a joint media briefing at the end of the plenary session of the BRICS Summit in New Delhi March 29, 2012. The BRICS group of emerging market nations voiced concern about the slow pace of reforms within the IMF in a draft summit declaration that also called for a transparent process to select the next World Bank president.

I am elected to lead, not to read.”-  President Schwarzenegger, The Simpsons, US cartoon

The ANC succession battles this year in the run-up to the party’s elective conference in Mangaung are making an objective and impassioned assessment of President Jacob Zuma’s leadeship of the ANC and South Africa almost impossible. So politically charged and fraught is the current political atmosphere that even choosing to do such a leadership assessment easily becomes a matter of great partisan controversy, conjure and contestation.

So in attempting such an objective and impassioned evaluation of President Zuma’s leadership of the ANC and South Africa, I shall be guided by the advice of the current ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, who recently wrote that: “When one is referred to as an analyst, society necessarily presupposes the person concerned would, in the main, dissect and delve into issues to provide an objective critique.”

Mantashe went on to say, instructively,  that “such a critique, under normal circumstances, is viewed as being beyond reproach in that it offers more than personal views or opinion and mere criticism.” (Mangaung not DC panel, Sowetan, June 19, 2012, page 9).

Whilst our current circumstances cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be described as “normal”, I shall nevertheless attempt an assessment of Zuma’s leadership that, hopefully, will “offer more than personal views or opinion and mere criticism”.

On the other hand, as a leading light and former chairman of the SACP, Mantashe will, I believe, agree with Karl Marx’s call for “…ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just a little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction, 1843) This tenet will also guide my assessment of Zuma’s leadership so far, without personalizing the matter or throwing insults at the subject matter.

The objective necessity for such an assessment can be found in the recent torrent of criticism directed at President Zuma’s leadership. Such criticism ranges from the more acerbic comments directed at Zuma by expelled ANCYL leader Julius Malema; to the more measured comments of Nedbank chairman Ruel Khoza, who famously decried SA’s ” strange breed of leaders”; to Democratic Alliance (DA)’s Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko’s call to Zuma to not avail himself for re-election in Mangaung. It also includes the opinions of the ANC’s own luminaries like former President Thabo Mbeki and his younger brother, Moeletsi, as well as the views of the ANC Gauteng Province Chairman, and Minister of Arts and Culture in the Zuma national cabinet, Paul Mashatile, who has spearheaded calls within the ANC for Jacob Zuma to be replaced in Mangaung. (Leadership race frenzy, The New Age Editorial, 28 August 2012).

Putting it much more saliently, Dr Azar Jammine, the chief economist at Econometrix, said South Africa “was going through a leadership crisis and needed an ‘appropriate president’.” (South Africa’s week from hell, Business Times, 21 October 2012). As if to emphasise the crisis of presidential leadership Jonny Steinberg, the Sunday Times columnist, stated that Jacob Zuma “is not a man blessed with foresight.” (21 October 2012). ANC veteran Dr Pallo Jordan meanwhile has said that “some of the actions of the president have deprived the office of the president of its dignity.”

One of SA’s leading finance gurus and newspaper columnists, David Shapiro, felt compelled recently to agree with BDFM publisher, Peter Bruce, another highly influential SA opinion former, that “…South Africa was becoming the sort of place only investors with shiny suits will take seriously, continuing the litany of bad policy, poor Judgment, rotten leadership and blatant corruption that Zuma has brought to the highest office in the land…” (Making sense of high finance, The Times SA, 23 October 2012, page 10). Mosiuoa Lekota, the leader of Congress of the People (COPE), also recently characterised President Jacob Zuma as “self-centred to care what harm he causes and what danger he exposes” South Africa to.

All the above comments represent outright condemnation of the lacklustre and uninspiring national leadership in SA under President Jacob Zuma. They also attest to the fact that the deep national disquiet over President Zuma’s failing leadership enjoys resonance across the entire spectrum of South Africa’s body of public opinions, including from within the ANC, falling just short of that rare thing: a national consensus.

It is no wonder that one is therefore reminded of the historical questions that were once posed by one of SA’s legendary white freedom fighters and ANC icons, and the man who drafted South Africa’s Freedom Charter, “Rusty” Bernstein:

“…the new South Africa is proving to be very different from the hopes and visions we once held…I cannot rest with just a description of what is now happening to confound our hopes. I am driven to ask also what went wrong? And why? It is that our hopes were romantically unrealistic or our appraisal of the resistance movement fatally flawed…political leaders too inadequate or self seeking for the task?” (“Rusty” Bernstein’s Letter to John Saul, Monthly Review, 2001).

Assessing Jacob Zuma’s presidential leadership performance is therefore to investigate what lies at the source of his leadership inspiration or, alternatively, what constitutes his leadership inhibition. It is also to seek to answer “Rusty” Bernstein’s haunting questions regarding “…what went wrong? And why?” Is our current President “too inadequate or self seeking for the task”? Or too “self-centred”? (Mosiuoa Lekota). Or, as Dr Azar Jammine asked, do we have “an appropriate president?”

In one of my previous Politicsweb articles, I stated that Jacob Zuma’s “tactical brilliance” has occasionally bestowed upon him the capacity “to harvest amazing long term strategic gains.” Zuma is quintessentially a brilliant tactician or a genius of tactical master strokes, politically speaking. Perhaps this fact alone, more than any other, accounts for the very long but steady rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and rise of Jacob Zuma up the very pinnacle of the ANC and South African politics.

He has won many, many bruising tactical battles since joining the ANC in the late 1950s, which tactical victories, cumulatively, begetting him strategic advantages of enormous significance. Not for him the soaring rhetorical flourish or some grand poetic levitation. Very prosaic, he deals decisively, and sometimes unprofessionally, with each battle at hand, making steady, sure, if also very messy personal and political progress.

From being the ANC Chief Representative in Mozambique, after serving a long stint on Robben Island as a political prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Goven Mbeki, Harry Gwala and other ANC titans, to his stint as ANC intelligence head and negotiator in exiie, to his known roles after 1994, there was nothing overly remarkable about Jacob Zuma, other than his outward personal warmth.

Each small tactical victory, day by day, became the granite stepping-stone to attaining grandiose political longevity. He knew that if you wait patiently and long enough under an African fruit tree, some low-lying ripe fruit will come down tumbling on your lap of its own accord. Not the long journey, but surviving the attritions of each day at hand, became the reward. And thus Jacob Zuma has, quite amazingly, outlived bigger ANC luminaries, dreamers, fantasists, scholars, strategists, visionaries, intellects, poets, urbanites, cultural and political commissars, and even the rare clairvoyants of his generation.

He still remains standing and physically strong, despite the challenges, misfortunes, intellectual handicaps, personal tragedies and ridicule, as well as his crass scandals, which now and again engulf and threaten to overwhelm him. Even at his advanced age, after all the tribulations he has gone through in life, he remains democratic South Africa’s hedonist-in-chief, ready to party, dance, sing, dine, marry or attend a wedding, and guffaw at the slightest urging. So full of life.  So powerfully craving for sensual pleasures. So happy-looking. Because Zuma never sacrifices grasp for reach, or ying for yang.

He never sacrifices weight for height. Or the known for some unknown, unexperimented and undefined misty and distant future. He never sacrifices the need for immediate political survival for the unaffordable niceties of leisurely, visionary, and long term strategic thinking. He is our politics’ foremost practical man. Daily Zuma advertises his personal triumph and joys by the ever-ready sunshine smile and uninhibited, loud, public and deep rural guffaws, with his very last teeth at the back of his jaws remarkably visible.

At his recent 70th birthday celebrations, Jacob Zuma boasted that the secret to his long life is that he does “not bear grudges”. He should have added that it is also because he enjoys the indulges and some vices of life. He likes and enjoys good life, whilst at the same time he can withstand the roughest of life’s turns.

It is this unmistakable penchant for tactical brilliance that has made Zuma one of the ANC’s leading political survivors and “bounce-back” kids in the organization’s history. It is also what has made him such a formidable, durable and fearsome ANC and SA political operators of his generation.

However, this tactical brilliance has, sadly, masked Jacob Zuma’s appalling lack of faresighted strategic capacity. He is not a master of long term strategic games. Zuma is in fact not a master strategist, despite his occasional public and widely broadcasted pretence that he is some self-made grand chess master of sorts on the hobby side. His underdeveloped strategic ability is one singular reason which accounts for the pervasive sense abroad among the general public of a profound crisis around Zuma’s presidential leadership at the current moment. It is a general public perception that gets more entrenched with each passing day.

The Marikana Massacre on 16 August 2012 – democratic South Africa’s first brutal State atrocity on a large scale – and its aftermath, are often cited as a prime example of the inability on the part of Jacob Zuma to see the long term strategic impact of a set of short term developments, decisions, measures and actions that come into confluence in an undesirable, unplanned and unpredictable manner. (Jonny Steinberg, ibid; and my 17 September 2012 Politicsweb article entitled ‘Marikana Massacre: ANC’s leadership paralysis’).

It is not quite clear that Zuma is capable of holding his own when having to deal, simultaneously, with competing, multi-layered and onion-peeled complexities upon complexities of state governance and party organizational challenges, as his presidential job requires. It is noteworthy that for a number of days following the Marikana Massacre, there did not appear to exist any coherent, clear and well-articulated government response and message, from our highest presidential office, on the tragedy, other than his Marikana hospital visit. Even to this day, there is no in depth and strategic analysis of the profound crisis that the ANC, COSATU, SACP and South Africa find themselves in, following the Marikana Massacre.

In addition, Zuma’s embarrassing stumbles over his first State of the Nation addresses in parliament, made worse by his buffoonery in mispronouncing some words in his parliamentary speeches, such as saying ABSA instead of DBSA, went to reinforce the public’s concern that he was maladjusting to his high office and simply not coping with his presidential job.

The result of this definite lack of any evident and articulated strategic foresight is that Zuma has became a political survivor of note, who failed to pivot his brilliant tactical games around any long-term vision or goal. There is no one who can vouch that in his youth, and later in his adult political life before 1994, Zuma ever dreamt of one day occupying the highest office in the land under a democratic dispensation.

It was not for lack of personal and political ambition though. It was also not just his observing ANC protocol on these matters. It attests to the fact that he is not a long ranger, strategically and intellectually speaking. He literally stumbled upon first the deputy presidency, and ultimately the presidency, largely owing to the multiple political miscalculations of his presidential predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whose cardinal political mistake of his entire long political life was to completely misread who really Jacob Zuma wass, and ultimately to underestimate him, with devastating political consequences to himself (Mbeki).

Compare this political humility and outward lack of ambition on the part of Zuma with credible and apocryphal stories about how Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa announced their leadership ambitions much earlier on in their political careers.

No wonder then that whilst Nelson Mandela gave us National Reconciliation as being emblematic platform of his presidency, and whilst Thabo Mbeki did the same with the African Renaissance, Jacob Zuma has so far failed dismally to articulate and politically bet on any over-arching and inspirational strategic vision of his own, which can be said to be emblematic and uniquely heraldic of his presidency.

His attempt to sell the newly-released, controversial and highly contested National Development Plan, and the recently announced multi-billion infrastructure spend, as his presidency’s emblematic platform is unconvincing at best, and bureaucratic-minded at worst. For neither is the stuff the “vision thing” is made of. (See my Pretoria News article of late last year entitled “NPA (sic – NPC) mutton dressed up as lamb.”)

Instead, throughout his five years’ presidency of the ANC, and now his three years’ presidency of SA, Jacob Zuma often seems “directionless” (to paraphrase Thabo Mbeki), and adrift, seeming to hop from one national crisis, to an even bigger national crisis, and appearing to be in a permanent fire-fighting mode. Many times he came across as overwhelmed and at the deep end.

There were recent unsourced media reports that Jacob Zuma wept like a cry-baby at the first post-Marikana Massacre emergency meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC). In the meantime, his presidential behaviour, decisions and actions not seldom come across as unfocused in many instances, and sporadic, uncoordinated and knee-jerk in some instances.

In other instances, his diary seems informed by nothing else but a desire to remain relevant to the media. After the fanfare of his visit to Balfour in Mpumalanga, not much is heard of his interventions there. There are of course competing claims on his time from the National Development Plan, the New Industrial Development Plan, the New Growth Plan, etc.

Still, the presidential personality of Zuma appears not to be informed and undergirded by any sense of an integrative and over-arching long term strategic insight or anchor, other than a desperate desire to political survive for another day, so as to fight and survive another short term tactical battle or crisis. Or even the desperate desire to survive the first term of his presidency, in the hope of winning a second presidential term, which he evidently, but bizarrely, hopes to use to redeem many of the glaring failures of his first term as president.

His political and governance philosophy is like a jersey which lacks an anchoring thread. The jersey instead appears to be a jointed patchwork of many disparate, disharmonious and incomplete small pieces of knit work, which nevertheless allows you to survive a cold day, even if it may not last the whole winter. To paraphrase US President Barack Obama during the third presidential debate with Republican Governor Mitt Romney on the foreign policy of the USA, during his first term in office, President Zuma often appears “to be all over the map”, both domestically and in terms of his international engagements.

Jacob Zuma’s own top foreign policy advisor, Lindiwe Zulu, all but conceded the point in a recent interview with the Sunday Times (SA) on 21 October 2012. As the Sunday Times put it, “arguing why Zuma deserved a second term, Zulu said the first term was characterised by Zuma contending with legal battles, while many doubted his capacity to lead.”

Zulu is further quoted by the Sunday Times as having added:

“The fact [is] that he came in with the baggage…of the [corruption court] case. He spent a lot of time trying to stabilise himself and the environment around him…I think that in the next term he will have less to worry about and more to worry about the issues that are on the table for him as president of the country and the ANC.” ( Zuma deserves second term, says top advisor, Sunday Times, page 4).

[The truth of the matter of course is that if the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has its day in our courts, and succeeds to re-instate the (dropped) corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, even the guarded optimism of Lindiwe Zulu for a hoped-for better second term for Zuma will prove highly misplaced.]

But how did the ANC and South Africa end up with the totally undesirable situation in which their serving president’s “capacity to lead” (Lindiwe Zulu) was “doubted” by many? Where “the first term was characterised by Zuma contending with legal battles”, instead of paying all his attention and prioritizing all his efforts on the presidential job we elected him for? And clearly, by the looks of things, the “doubt” by many has turned into panic, if not outright dismay, by most, over Jacob Zuma’s presidential leadership capacity. The three years he has spent steering the ship of state have not addressed or removed the “doubt”. If anything, new “doubts” have emerged with greater force and astonishing regularity.

[Interestingly, Lindiwe Zulu’s interview with the Sunday Times highlights the stark deficiency in the ANC’s processes for choosing its leader. This is especially so when the ANC leadership nomination processes are compared with the more robust, transparent, gruelling and much more intrusive USA presidential primaries. There is no way a deeply flawed character like President Jacob Zuma, even if he enjoyed the solid financial backing of the Guptas and some of our BEE moguls, would survive a week of media glare during American presidential primaries. Zuma, with his “baggage” and “[corruption court] case”, as well as his out-of-wedlock infidelity, would be like a lamb to slaughter in American presidential primaries, let alone that he would be allowed to serve out his first presidential term.]

The presidential absent-mindedness and lack of focus, if you like, occasioned by Jacob Zuma’s personal “baggage” was, as a matter of fact, earlier pointed to by Jacob Zuma’s (now) bitter political nemesis, the expelled ANCYL leader, and currently Commander-In-Chief of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Sello Malema.

In a long interview with Adriaan Groenewald of the Business Report Leadership Platform, Julius Malema, among other things, said the following about President Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC during his first four years in office:

“In meetings, his political overview was flat. With all these expectations I had, what I remember him saying over and over for the past four years was that people are gossiping. He would comment that the information came to him about gossiping going on. Every two months we hear that – gossiping about him. We had to live in fear, not knowing what information he had.

“There was never any analysis of the state we are at, in terms of the revolution, whether it is on course, what our challenges are, what are (sic) the balance of forces, where to from here. He would not comment on the implications of the global economic crisis, or recently the euro zone. No proper analysis about the attack on Libya, or what is happening in Syria, just no international perspective” (19 July 2012).

If even half of what Julius Malema claimed above is indeed true, it would represent a truly shocking and even unprecedented dereliction of presidential duty and responsibility.

But a compelling question arising out of all this is whether such a lacklustre presidential performance during his first years in office entitles Zuma to be rewarded with a second term in office? An even more compelling question is what guarantee is there that Zuma will leave behind the quintessential “Zuma Moment” (Gwede Mantashe) of his first term in the presidential office, to embrace, as COSATU and some of its affiliate unions have glibly, vacuously and rather flippantly suggested, the Brazilian “Lula Moment”?

From Jacob Zuma being eternally consumed by tactical and survivalist predisposition, and being distracted by “his baggage” during his first years in the presidency, it is a short step to a predilection for over-relying on securocratic instincts, hard-to-die habits, and the formidable securocratic state apparatus, to do his strategizing and to make up for his overall strategic failings or shortcomings.

Thus under President Jacob Zuma, the Cabinet security cluster has again emerged as one of the most powerful and influential, if not the most dreaded and reviled, loci and executive instruments of State coercion and hard power in our democratic Republic, staffed mainly by Zuma’s very loyal and trusted political lieutenants, who also happen to be his “kitchen cabinet” political confidants, and who are drawn overwhelmingly from his home province of KZN.

In this selection of those who staff his national security cluster, derisively referred to as “the KZN security cluster” by some of Zuma’s internal ANC political foes, Zuma threw out the window Nelson Mandela’s advice, delivered at the ANC elective conference in Mafikeng in 1997, against ANC leaders ‘surrounding themselves with yes-men.”

As a result, not since the time of apartheid-era President PW Botha in the 1980s – arguably South Africa’s cruellest and most desolate political time – has a national leader so elevated the status, power, prestige, influence and reach of the cabinet security cluster in our national affairs and in the conduct of matters of our democratic State.

This is more than a function of the fact that Jacob Zuma himself is the product, and subsequently leader, of the exiled ANC’s security apparatus. This also speaks to Zuma’s preferred, and not-so-unique, form of presidentialism, or what Floyd Shivambu of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) described recently in his Politicsweb article on Jacob Zuma as “narrow Bonapartist presidentialism.

It also speaks to Zuma’s own unique and known personal insecurities (Julius Malema on Zuma’s fear and dislike for “gossiping” within the ANC’s upper decision-making echelons, ibid). The flip side of Zuma’s “narrow Bonapartist presidentialism” (Floyd Shivambu, ibid) and his unique personal insecurities (Julius Malema, ibid), is that he has failed to fully appreciate the fact that, as David Lesch, the eminent historian at San Antonio’s Trinity University (USA) recently put, “power is an aphrodisiac and when you are surrounded by sycophants, you begin to believe them.” (Washington Post, 17 June 2012). Is it any wonder that Jacob Zuma, after publicly committing to serve only one term, now believes the sycophants and the “yes-men” (Nelson Mandela) surrounding him and re-assuring him that he will triumph and prevail in Mangaung to gain re-election as the ANC President?

[In passing, it is worth pointing out that it is not clear as to whether Floyd Shivambu’s characterization of the Zuma regime as “narrow Bonapartist presidentialism” differs markedly from Fouad Ajami’s characterization of the Bashar Al Assaad Syrian regime as “…part Stalinist, part-tribalist.” (On Syria and Lebanon, USA Foreign Affairs magazine, May/June 2005, Vol 84, No. 3, page 32). Or is there room to speculate that the Zuma regime is part-kleptocratic, part-Stalinist, part-tribalist, part-nativitist, part-patriarchal, part-technocratic (National Treasury’s preponderant influence over the national economic cluster, according to the DA’s Tim Harris), part-populist, part-sub-imperialistic, part-securocratic and part-Shaka Zulu?]

This over-reliance on securocratic instincts and appartatus, and the wielding of the security cluster in lieu of strategic, deliberate, thoughtful a in depth analysis of challenges and policy options before our nation and state, on the part of Jacob Zuma, gets compounded by the absence of a highly developed and refined tradition of personal intellectual, reading and academic endowments.

In all the brouhaha around multi-millions of tax-payers SA rands being splurged to upgrade Nkandla, Zuma’s rural homestead in KZN, no one has detected any plan to build Zuma’s personal library, similar to the American Presidential Library, or like a home library as promoted by the Italian thinker, Umberto Eco.

There is talk galore of miniature football fields, a gym, a clinic, a guesthouse, talk of roads and a helipad. But no talk of a presidential library! This marked absence of personal intellectual and reading culture and scholarly erudition in Zuma feed into a barely concealed disdain and bottled-up contempt for those Zuma likes to derisively refer to as “those who think they are clever”, who also happen to be some of his government’s fiercest critics. A crude form of anti-intellectualism, and even mistrust of “intellectual professionalism”, as well as “bureaucratic professionalism”, consequently pops up now and again. Jacob Zuma’s complicated and strained relationship with the public intellectual and businessman, Moeletsi Mbeki, is a powerful case in point.

Zuma’s limited educational achievement, coupled with his rural background and healthy respect for his world-acclaimed Zulu culture, has made it easy for cartoonists, stand-up comedians and some newspapers, like the UK’s Daily Mail (during President Jacob Zuma’s first State Visit to the UK), to portray him, uncharitably, as a “buffoon”. Or a “Ruralitarian”, according to the SA political analyst, Prince Mashele.

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). This is the first in a two party series of articles.

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