South Africa, World

Ba(ra)ck to the future: Why Obama will outlast Jacob Zuma

By Sipho Hlongwane 12 November 2012

What does President Barack Obama do right that President Jacob Zuma does so wrong? It’s not just that he’s a better leader. He’s also a president in chime with the future, not the past. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

A poll conducted by GlobeScan for the BBC showed that Barack Obama was the runaway favourite candidate amongst non-US people. 

“A new 21-nation poll for BBC World Service indicates that citizens around the world would strongly prefer to see Barack Obama re-elected as US President rather than his Republican challenger Mitt Romney,” the BBC said.

“The poll of 21,797 people, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA between July 3 and September 3, 2012, indicates that Obama is preferred to Romney in 20 of the 21 countries polled. Overall, an average of 50% would prefer to see Obama elected, compared to only nine per cent who prefer Romney. The rest express no preference between the two.

“Of all the countries polled, France is currently the most strongly pro-Obama, with 72% wanting him to be re-elected and just two per cent preferring Romney. Australia (67%), Canada (66%), Nigeria (66%), and the UK (65%) are among the other countries with large majorities favouring Obama,” the BBC said.

There is no doubt that Obama’s presidency has had a buoying effect across the world. The Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2009 awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize based partly on this. It said: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

It is inevitable that a president as popular on the world stage as Obama will be used as a yardstick against which other leaders are measured. On two counts, he comes out well ahead of President Jacob Zuma: he is a better leader, and he appeals to the kind of young (and youthful) people who are of the future, not the past. 

Obama won on the back of a very bad recession because he appealed to a new America – one that is comprised of more blacks and Hispanics, one that isn’t as averse to government, and one that believes in rights for homosexuals. Mitt Romney’s Republican party tried to stoke the fears of angry, old white people by portraying Obama as an outsider on a mission to change the country radically. It failed. 

“The Republicans increasingly look like the party of angry, older white people… And that does not work in America any more,” the Guardian said in its analysis of the end of the supremacy of conservative white USA. 

Zuma has betrayed himself many times as being a deeply patriarchal and socially conservative man, which has often put him at odds with South Africa’s new black middle class. Speaking to the house of traditional leaders recently, he lashed out at what he perceived to be blacks who’ve abandoned their traditions for “white values”. 

“They become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything,” Zuma said of blacks that he described as “becoming too clever”. The president’s awkward phrasing aside, the fact that he seems to have a problem with blacks who do not conform to his idea of “African ideas” puts him at odds with younger blacks. 

When Zuma appeared on Dali Tambo’s People of the South television programme, he said that he was happy that his daughter Duduzile got married.

“I was also happy because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother,” he said.

The comments caused a huge uproar.

Comparing the presidency in the United States to South Africa is difficult because both countries have unique ways of choosing a president. Neither really reflect the popular persuasion, as the leader of the executive is chosen by a college of electors in the US, and parliament in South Africa. But in the matter of record during the first term, one president stands out head and shoulders above the other, and it isn’t the one who built a sprawling homestead using public funds. 

After his victory became increasingly undeniable (even by the hilariously confounded Fox News) Obama said: “And tonight, despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future. I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”

It was a hopeful speech, one which reminded us why Obama continues to be a figure of inspiration for people around the world, not just the blue half of the USA.

News24 columnist Zama Ndlovu said Obama had won because he was clearly the better candidate. The US process of choosing a nominee also meant that there was more accountability to the people.

“The US process of choosing the best candidate as a party also holds those who support the party partly responsible for their candidate’s loss; it makes everyone more accountable for the quality of the candidate selected. 

“Our current system does not allow for that level of responsibility and accountability at the individual state level, so the candidates that parties put forward are not tested and we never get to love or hate them until its just too late,” Ndlovu said.

Eyewitness News Mabine Seabe hoped for less belligerence from the US at the United Nations Security Council, but said that he was happy that Obama won re-election. 

“When President Obama speaks, one gets the feeling that the man has a plan. I am not American, but when he speaks I feel like he’s speaking to me. On the other hand, we have our President Zuma who, at best, gives zero hope, especially in the context of downgrades by various ratings agencies. President Zuma is definitely not a President Obama,” he said.

Miehleketo Baloyi had a similar complaint about Zuma’s perceived lack of vision. 

“I am tired of the government always making up excuses for bad governance. We all know that Apartheid was immoral and that it will take decades to rebuild, but this shouldn’t be used to blanket poor leadership,” he said.

“Zuma has never communicated his vision for South Africa. I honestly don’t know where we’re going as a nation. I think he sees the presidency as a privilege to indulge and not as a platform to serve and lead.”

Despite the fact that Zuma promised to be an empty vessel that would trumpet ANC policy, the problem with this approach has become glaringly obvious when he has had to put out multiple flames. The country wants a leader in times of crisis, someone who chimes with them and actually does something to fix the problem. Whatever it is. Obama’s re-election – considering that he took power in the midst of one of the worst recessions in human history – is proof that strong and capable leadership will be rewarded, no matter what the circumstances. 

Zuma’s patriarchy and conservatism will make him less palatable to the South Africans who are the signs of the new democracy: the young, black middle class he distrusts so much. The feeling is mutual. Even if he was a more accountable and effective leader, he would still inspire embarrassment and dislike rather than the adulation that Obama enjoys. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with South African President Jacob Zuma during their meeting at Blair House in Washington D.C. April 11, 2010. Zuma is in town for this week’s nuclear security summit. REUTERS/Richard Clement 


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