Since the launch of this Sowetan leadership debate, South Africans and foreign observers alike have been waiting eagerly for us to reflect on “Zuma and the word.”
When contemplating such an important matter, a question springs to mind: has South Africa’s image in the world improved or worsened since Jacob Zuma became president?
We can respond to this question on the basis of the influence of Zuma’s personality in international affairs, South Africa’s weight in intergovernmental bodies and the articulation of our country’s foreign policy.
In international affairs, events matter. Heads of state rely on the weight of their personality – intellect and stature – to persuade gatherings to support their national positions. What foreigners think of our president is important.
Whenever Nelson Mandela appeared in international forums, most people felt fortunate to be in the presence of our global icon. At the time, it was a source of pride to be South African.
Upon taking over from Mandela, Thabo Mbeki crafted and skillfully marketed an Africanist image on the global stage. His initiatives are well-known – from OAU to the AU, NEPAD to the APRM.
What, then, do foreigners think of Jacob Zuma?
Attending the World Economic Forum for the first time as president of our great nation, Zuma was asked by the globally respected journalist Fareed Zakaria if he loved all his wives equally. Zuma giggled and answered: “Absolutely!”
“There are many people in this audience who find it a challenge to be married to one person,” Zakaria replied. Our president proceeded to persuade Zakaria and the World Economic Forum to respect Zulu culture; which, in Zuma’s view, encourages polygamy.
The World Economic Forum is a platform for world leaders and entrepreneurs to share ideas and showcase economic opportunities offered by their countries and companies.
It is not a cultural showground for 70-year old polygamists to display their skill to accumulate wives. Thus did millions of South Africans feel embarrassed by questions of wives and equal love.
Some might dismiss Fareed Zakaria as a silly and mischievous journalist. But what do 21st century leaders probably think whenever they are to meet Zuma?
Imagine Barak Obama discussing details about climate change. Do you think Zuma would comprehend the dynamics of ultraviolet radiation harmful to the ozone layer?
It also would be interesting to know what the young and intellectually gifted David Cameroon of the UK honestly thinks when engaged in a discussion with Zuma.
Well, these are questions that can be answered by those who are blessed with the gift of imagination. The tragedy is that truth about these matters may well remain forever buried in the minds of Obama, Cameroon and other modern leaders.
An important area of further observation is that of intergovernmental organisations. Here we can gauge the influence of our country in foreign affairs.
An outstanding achievement by Zuma is perhaps his success in pleading for South Africa’s inclusion as a member of what used to be called “Bric” countries, and now called Brics.
Last month in London, Goldman Sachs asset manager Jim O’Neill – the man who coined the term “Bric” – was blunt in an interview: “It’s just wrong. South Africa doesn’t belong in Brics”.
O’Neill’s argument is that South Africa’s economy is too small, and thereby weakens Brics.
The fact that our growth estimate in the current financial year has been revised downwards from 3.2% to 2.7%, while the rest of the Brics members are forecast to grow by an average of about 7% raises doubts in O’Neill’s mind.
It would be easy to dismiss O’Neill as a mischievous skeptic, and to praise Zuma as the praiseworthy champion who made it possible for our country to punch above its weight.
The trouble, though, is that Zuma has yet to adduce facts to prove how ordinary South Africans will benefit from our country’s membership in Brics.
Intellectually – and indeed educationally – the whole world knows that Zuma is a dwarf among the giants who lead Brics countries.
The most embarrassing among Zuma’s foreign policy blunders was when he instructed our ambassador to the UN to vote in support of Resolution 1973, authorising NATO forces to invade Libya.
When NATO relied on Zuma’s vote to bombard Libya, he ran around crying foul that NATO was deviating from what South Africa voted for. Indeed, Zuma’s complaints changed nothing; Libya was bombed beyond recognition.
In Africa, where we used to enjoy hegemony before Zuma became our president, even the smallest of states no longer take South Africa seriously.
The recent failure to secure the chairpersonship of the AU is proof that South Africa has lost influence. To this day, ordinary citizens of our country do not know why, in the first place, Zuma tried to make his former wife chairperson of the AU.
To find evidence of Zuma’s influence in intergovernmental organizations, one would need to be an extraordinary researcher, or an exceedingly inventive marketing agent.
Critically analysed, Zuma’s blunders in foreign affairs emanate from his failure to craft and articulate a coherent foreign policy.
Other than attending international gatherings, there is no evidence that Zuma is capable of weaving a foreign policy that can strategically position South Africa in our fast-changing world.
That global politics and economics are becoming more complex is a reality that escapes only the unversed.
To discern the implications of the economic chaos in the euro zone for Africa requires technical skill Zuma does not possess.
Making sense of the systemic intricacies that have facilitated the birth of the virtual country the American economist Naill Ferguson calls “Chimerica” is an exercise far beyond the imagination of old-fashion leaders.
The unfolding political mayhem in North Africa and the Middle East is reconfiguring international relations in a manner that has thrown even the best among our foreign policy wonks into total confusion.
In response to all this, Zuma’s below-average foreign minister, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, recently introduced a laughable thing called “foreign policy of Ubuntu” – whatever it means.
What, then, is our verdict on Zuma and the world? Disaster!