The funny thing about the Mangaung leadership race is that Jacob Zuma’s supporters do not deny his failures and weaknesses. They joke about them, play them down or explain why he needs greater support. There is a litany of reasons why Zuma has turned out to be a bad president – one explanation is that the ANC wanted him to be this way. In truth, Zuma was not elected on the basis that he would be a good leader. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In the midst of The Spear debacle earlier this year, President Jacob Zuma made comments which revealed his attitude to criticism of his leadership. Addressing the National Union of Mineworkers' congress in May, Zuma said: “People say 'Lomuntu akakwazi ukuphatha ilizwe ngoba akazi lutho' (This person does not know how to run the country because he knows nothing).
“I know what I am doing,” he said. “I didn't get here by mistake.”
He was definitely not elected by mistake, but Zuma became ANC president not because of any outstanding leadership skills. He was elected in order to remove Thabo Mbeki and to punish the former president for his dogmatic style of leadership. In the run-up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference, most of the focus among Zuma’s supporters was to try and keep him out of jail.
The momentum of the support campaign during his trials evolved into the presidential campaign and changing the ANC from acquiescent lapdog it had become under Mbeki’s leadership. Other than his supporters saying that Zuma was a “man of the people” and “an organic intellectual”, there was no prerequisite for him to possess or display any exceptional leadership qualities.
If anything, most of Zuma’s weakness were looked over and excused at the time. His inability to control his finances and reliance on sponsors was blamed on his contribution to the Struggle – that imprisonment and exile and deprived him of a livelihood and therefore he was entitled to hand-outs from businessmen.
His evasive manner was attributed to his background in ANC intelligence. As a result, nobody really knew where Zuma stood on any particular issue when he became president. His attitude towards women was explained in the context of Zulu culture. All the trouble he got into was blamed on political conspiracies.
When ANC members burnt T-shirts bearing the face of Mbeki or sang insulting songs, Zuma would distance himself from his supporters’ actions. Yet the current state of chaos and division in the ANC is as a result of the unruliness that manifested during that time.
During the trials, there was so much hero-worshipping of Zuma that people compared his prosecution to the persecution of Jesus Christ. It exacerbated his already cavalier attitude and is part of the reason why he has never felt the need to mend his ways.
At a celebratory party after charges were dropped against him, one of his main lieutenants joked that Zuma could actually commit armed robbery in broad daylight and nobody would believe it was him because everyone would think it was yet another conspiracy. Granted, it was facetious commentary in the midst of revelry, but it is also indicative of the fact that Zuma never has to be answerable for his actions.
At a Black Business summit in Midrand on Thursday, Zuma responded to the public outrage over media reports about the revamp of his Nkandla homestead at state expense in excess of R200-million. He claimed his family paid for a large part of the renovations and that he did not know the cost of the improvement of security features at his home.
“I think the ministers have given the answers, and if people want to pursue that, they’ll pursue it. I don’t question the security measures that government takes in relation to presidents, vice-presidents, ministers or MEC. It is what is regulated somehow. They have their own way of assessing the situation,” Zuma said.
Zuma did not want to commit himself on the amount used to renovate his Nkandla private home. “I would not want to comment or judge because these matters are handled by the ministers and the Auditor General. They know how the budgets are done; I can’t make myself an expert on those ones,” he said.
It is Zuma’s stock response to most controversies around him: I don’t know, go ask someone else.
One of Zuma’s most ardent supporters and advocates for his second term, Young Communist League national secretary Buti Manamela, says much of the criticism against the president is “unfair”. He says the ANC decided in Polokwane to reverse the practice of “excessive presidentialism” which was evident during the Mbeki era.
“We wanted change in Polokwane and [to] place power with the collective. Now we are collapsing all the problems onto the individual, the person of the president. It’s as if decisions are the sole competence of the president. There must be collective responsibility, because that is what we had wanted,” Manamela said.
“This is a consequence of our own decisions. I am not saying there are no weaknesses. But people who are deployed into positions must also take responsibility. There are also people in the leadership who are distancing themselves from issues such as the state of the ANC, factionalism and so on, when they must take collective share of the blame,” he said.
Manamela said Zuma was carrying out the mandate for collective leadership he was given at Polokwane, and therefore should be supported for a second term of office. He said an election showdown should be avoided at Mangaung, because if the ANC kept changing its mind about what it wants of its leaders, there would be leadership battles every five years.
The inability of the ANC and the parliamentary system to hold Zuma accountable for his leadership now means that despite the spiralling crisis in the country, he will probably be allowed to serve another term.
When Judge Willem van der Merwe acquitted Zuma of rape in 2006, he rounded off the judgment with words that stung the president immensely. Van der Merwe said it was “totally unacceptable” for a man to have unprotected sex with a woman who was not his regular partner, especially knowing that she was HIV-positive.
“Had Rudyard Kipling known of this case at the time he wrote his poem If, he might have added the following: ‘And if you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man, my son’.”
It was the first and last time anyone was able to tell Zuma to be responsible for his actions. And because he was sitting in the dock, he was forced to listen.
It is a great pity that the advice seems to have been long forgotten, and that facing the consequences of his actions is not something Zuma would ever have to contend with.
The ANC needs to decide whether it wants to govern through a committee of people with a ceremonial head at the top or an executive president capable of leading South Africa. In order to answer that, it needs to be established who exactly is the ANC amid the assortment of factions and interest groups fighting for dominance.
Ironically, the divisions in the party can only be resolved by strong leadership at the top, and strong leadership at the top can only come when the interests of the party and the country take precedence over the cult of personality.
As the current social and economic crisis reaches frightening proportions, Zuma’s weaknesses and failings can no longer be blamed on shadow figures. The ANC will ultimately have to bear the consequences of the choices it is about to make. DM
Photo: Then newly elected top six-members of the ANC (L-R) Deputy Secretary General Thandie Modise, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, Chairperson Baleka Mbethe, President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Treasurer General Matthews Phosa pose for pictures during the third day of a leadership conference in Polokwane December 18, 2007. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)