The Zuma Presidency so far: a period of theoretical disorder?

Categories: | Author: SuperUser Account | Posted: 5/24/2011 | Views: 3377
In an attempt to answer the question: What Is To Be Done?, V.I. Lenin made a profound observation that seems to capture the collective feeling of many South Africans as they look back on the year-long road traversed with President Jacob Zuma at the helm:

Quite a number of people with very little, and even a total lack of theoretical training joined the movement because of its practical significance and its practical successes … To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day.

If someone were to wish us another Jacob Zuma Presidency in 2014, would we react like mourners at a funeral who do not want to be wished many happy returns of the day? Or, would we happily thank the one who says Zuma must return?

An answer to this question perhaps lies in the findings of the survey conducted by research company TNS, which revealed that in the first quarter of 2010, Zuma’s support declined to a worrying 43% – from 58% in December last year.

Indeed, there are many who might retort that we need to understand the factors that swung the mood of our nation before we take the results of this survey seriously. Only mischievous people would dismiss this argument, for even TNS admit that their findings were influenced by matters around Zuma’s personal life: “the multiple wives and the revelations of his love child.”

Others might argue that a study conducted in December is bound to be influenced by the prevailing festive mood. The most trivial among us might even exaggerate; by suggesting that when people are happy, they avoid the negative. The 58% that Zuma scored in the last quarter of 2009 might thus be projected as nothing more than the expression of how South Africans felt about Christmas.

If we agree that surveys are pseudo-scientific tools that do not tell us the real story about the phenomenon under scrutiny, how then are we to evaluate Jacob Zuma’s performance as our President over the past twelve months?

Perhaps we should rely on experience and logic to peep into aspects of truth about the early days of the Zuma presidency. The things we have seen him do; the way we have seen him walk, dance or laugh; the statements he has made for us to consume; all constitute our experience of the man. And the formation of our opinions about him relies on our ability logically to think.

As President, Jacob Zuma’s first major action was the appointment of a cabinet that would assist him in pursuit of what the ruling party promised to deliver. On this score, it would be unfair to fault him. Zuma’s cabinet is a fair reflection of sectors of our society.

As is the case in our society, there are socialists in Zuma’s cabinet, there are capitalists, there are people of faith and of no faith, there are blacks and whites, women and men, there are hardworking ministers and lazy ones too. There are people of fine minds in Zuma’s cabinet, and there are dull ones too. All of these characteristics indeed mirror our society.

All presidents want to be seen in their own image; those who cast themselves in the image of others do so to benefit from the greatness of those who came before them. When Zuma mentions Nelson Mandela, he does so to construct an image of himself in the light of Mandela’s greatness. And when he avoids mentioning Thabo Mbeki, he does not want South Africans to conclude that he is like Mbeki; given that he once described Mbeki as a “dead snake”.

In the main, Zuma’s reconfiguration of cabinet portfolios was an attempt to create an image of a president with a new approach to governance. But those who assisted him to rename departments did not prepare him enough to explain why he changed the names of some ministries, or what some of the newly created departments would do.

The confusion between the responsibilities and scope of work between the Departments of Finance; Economic Development; Trade and Industry; Planning Commission is one Zuma must have created unconsciously.

Many government officials still do not understand the meaning of the change from a Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. Sophisticated as the latter name may sound, experts know that this name conveys nothing profound.

A year is not enough to evaluate the work of old and new ministries. If such an evaluation were to be carried out, it would probably be a mixed bag.

Such ministries as Health have already shown signs that, under a new political leadership, they are serious about tackling problems they have faced for years. The recently announced members of the Planning Commission inspire confidence. The Department of Home Affairs also seems to be rising from the dead. In the end, Zuma must take credit for all this.

On the other side of the fence, only God knows what the new Ministry with a long name is doing, the ‘Department of Women, Children, and the rest’. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs may also need to tell us how many municipalities it has stabilized since it was given a ‘fancier’ name. Hopefully, millions of people who live in rural areas know what the new Department of Rural Development does for them. The invisibility of Gugile Nkwinti in urban areas is indeed understandable.

Beyond old and new departments, Jacob Zuma must be evaluated on the basis of his leadership style, his personal integrity, and the force of his ideas. Experience and logic should again be our guiding torch.

Mandela is remembered for his consultative style and his firmness in enforcing decisions taken by his collective. Mbeki is remembered for his decisiveness on certain issues, especially those about which he was passionate. There was a time when it was difficult to tell who was Foreign Minister between Mbeki and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The twelve months behind us have already proved that Zuma is a president who listens and who avoids rocking the boat. He listens and tells everyone who listens what they want to hear. At some point, members of COSATU were convinced that they would get what they wanted from Zuma. Afrikaners, too, were badly seduced by Zuma’s ear and affability.

The major pitfall of Zuma’s style of leadership is that after people have expressed their happiness about his listening skills no action follows. Thus, an impression of a listener, not a doer, is what people remain with for a long time.

Personal integrity is Jacob Zuma’s weakest point. While Mandela and Mbeki were themselves not saints, Zuma is the worst of them all. Since becoming President, the list of his wives has grown – and nobody knows when it will stop.

As spin doctors in the Presidency were beginning to master the use of Zulu culture to defend the President, he proceeded to do something that embarrassed many of our Zulu compatriots. The President adulterously fathered a child with the daughter of his high-profile friend, Irvin Khoza. When he acknowledged Khoza during the State of the Nation Address, parliamentarians couldn’t help but laugh.

“Why should we factor in Zuma’s personal life when we evaluate his performance as President?” some might ask. We should do so because at the World Economic Forum, he was asked about his wives and children. Many of us would have liked to see our President deal with economic issues, since it was an economic forum. Instead, his personal life followed him all the way to Davos.

Since the early days of Socrates, when thought began to free itself from the stunting bondage of religion, ideas have profoundly changed the world. Mandela and Tutu have contributed to the creation of a peaceful, new South Africa by advocating for reconciliation. On his part, Mbeki changed the perception of the world by projecting Africa as a continent undergoing a renaissance. Far afield, Obama renewed the hopes of Americans by making them believe that “Yes, we can”.

Since he took over power, Zuma has failed to register a lasting idea in the collective consciousness of South Africans. If a question were to be posed “What is the central idea that Zuma has been propagating since he took office?” his spin doctors would battle to answer. There is consensus that his last State of the Nation Address is the poorest since 1994. Journalists even suggested that Zuma needs to hire a new speech writer “fast!”

Zuma’s leadership as state President has also been weakened by the messiness of his political organization, the ANC. Members of the ANC call their organisation a “Broad Church”. Unlike in a real church, where criminals, drunkards, and saints allow the priest to say the final word, some leaders in the ANC have not allowed Zuma to have the last word. This has created the impression of a centre that does not hold; of a building that is collapsing on its occupants, and of a mass that is drifting apart.

Twelve months under a Zuma presidency, where are we as a nation? Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we are not very proud of our President; where we are not sure if he is in charge; where we do not know his ideas; where South Africans do their own things; where citizens seek solace from protest; where leadership seems like the thing we lack; but where we all remain hopeful.

To those who believe in the potential that South Africa has, Zuma’s leadership thus far seems like an era of theoretical disorder. Hopefully, stating this truth will not be like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day.

Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research, and a member of the Midrand Group
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