On 15 August 2011, only a month after his appointment as a presidential spokesperson, Mr. Mac Maharaj raised an important issue that should have been at the centre of our public discourse – the issue of understanding our president.
Unfortunately, as the ANCYL din grew louder, important issues such as the one raised by Maharaj fell by the way side. But now that the ANC kangaroo court has finally silenced the loud mouths in the ANCYL, we can now give attention to the Big Mac.
Speaking in an interview with BBC television, Maharaj said that there was “an issue in South Africa” around understanding the president. He then said, “He (Mr. Zuma) doesn't fit the normal mould of a president of a country. It's very important for the public to understand how he thinks, where he comes from, to understand the positions he takes and the way he manages issues.”
Maharaj was correct to stress the need for the public to understand the president. Remember, our system allows the ruling party to impose its will over the people. So, when Maharaj raises an issue about understanding our president, he is also acknowledging the flaws in our electoral law; that it doesn’t give the public an opportunity to understand the person who becomes president, to understand how he thinks, where he comes from, the positions he takes and the way he manages issues. Essentially, our laws do not compel a president elect neither to present his/her vision nor to defend his/her previous decisions before the public. If it did, we would perhaps better understand our president.
But how then, should we understand our president?
The question of understanding leaders is not new. It has troubled great minds many centuries ago as it does to Maharaj today. Let us then go back to 1505 and borrow a leaf from Niccole Machiavelli. In his famous book “the Prince”, Machiavelli wrote thus:
“The first opinion which one forms of a Prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognise the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them”.
Since his ascendance to presidency, Mr. Zuma has appointed many people; some as Ministers, Director Generals, his Advisors, his Spokespersons and his Judges.
The question is: What opinion does the public make of our president when they observe the women and men around him?
Despite the fact that he took over while we were already in the middle of the recession, Mr. Zuma’s cabinet remains the largest since 1994. Although there are few bright sparks in his cabinet, it is however not the highest concentration of the cerebral and capable. In addition to being dispensaries of patronage, some of the portfolios are nothing more than a refuge for mediocrity.
You only need to look at the Ministry for Women, Children and People with Disability, Ministry for Justice and Constitutional Development, Ministry for Correctional Services, Ministry for Basic Education and many others to get a full meaning of “a cult of mediocrity”.
That Mr. Zuma had two cabinet reshuffles in a space of two years is an indictment to him; for his prime error was in choosing them. In fact, the reshuffles reflect a presidency mired in serious instability.
Never before has instability in government been so aptly epitomised in the presidency. There have been two Director Generals in the presidency since Mr. Zuma took over, three Chief Operating Officers and four spokespersons including respectively, innocent Jessie Duarte and the ever sly Mac Maharaj.
How could Mr. Zuma encourage stability in government departments when his own office is mired in instability? While some departments have experienced up to three different political leaders during Zuma’s short term, some have either gone through as many as four Director Generals or are in the hands of incompetent acting Director Generals.
This brings us to another important question: When will Mr. Zuma’s government start working if it is still struggling to find its feet? A more challenging question as Mangaung approaches is: What would it take for him to convince ANC delegates that, indeed, he is fit to govern?
The political and legal advisors that Mr. Zuma has surrounded himself with have also failed him when it matters most. He has constantly suffered the embarrassment of court challenges on matters that should have been resolved by his legal advisors.
The ensuing debate on the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive has come about as a result of poor advise in the presidency. If the advisors did their work diligently, there would be no need for courts to intervene in matters of the executive. In fact, Judge Ncobo could have had a dignified exit if the Zuma’s advisors were meticulous in their job. Judge Mogoro too, should never have been appointed to serve in the Beki Cele Commission. These incidents were more than embarrassing of the head of state. He let himself down by appointing the calibre of advisors he has and this too was his gross error.
With all these errors, Mr. Zuma will make it difficult for his supporters in the SACP to disagree with Thomas Carlyle when he says that “it is only wisdom that can recognise wisdom, and attract it”.
But some may say that the women and men around president Zuma are not only his official aides. True, before he resurrected from his death bed, Shabir Shaick was the man behind our president. Thanks to the Guptas, the president is now on a national road show, albeit that some ANC members are already whinging about the eminent Guptarisation of the ANC and the state. With Khulubuse and Duduzane Zuma’s sudden wealth, some ill-disciplined cadres of the SACP say BEE has been transformed into “ZEE - Zuma Economic Empowerment”.
While some honest members of the ANC genuinely wonder why Mr. Zuma doesn’t cut ties with the moneyed and sometimes dubious characters, some Stalinists in the SACP would make us believe is a media onslaught on our president. It isn’t! This goes to show that the bond between money, politics and power is rock solid. Thus it is crucial that we understand our president even in this context.
In her excellent book, “Its our turn to eat”, Michela Wrong explains why some leaders would not dissociate with money-mongers. This is what she says:
“If a leader is surrounded by shifty, money grabbing aides and family members, it is because he likes it that way. These are the people he feels at ease with, whose working methods he respects. Far from being an aberration, the entourage is a faithful expression of autocrat’s own proclivities.”
Thus, he who expects the president to ask anyone – including the Big Mac – to resign on the basis of valid allegations of impropriety is ignorant of Wrong’s profound observation. That, far from being an aberration, the entourage is a faithful expression of autocrat’s own proclivities.
However, as we heed the call to understand how our president thinks, where he comes from, the positions he takes and the way he manages issues, like Maharaj, we cannot help but wonder why the ANC gave South Africa a person who “doesn’t fit the normal mould of a president.” Hopefully Mangaung will, finally, find a presidential president.