South Africa

Mangaung, T minus one: Being presidential – a moving target for Zuma and Motlanthe

By Ranjeni Munusamy 14 December 2012

In modern democracies, party primaries and the like are used to select the most capable candidates for leadership of the state, based on a range of criteria including qualifications, track record in public office and abilities. The ANC first chooses a personality and then it forces the person to adapt to the needs of the state. In Mangaung, it will set up another failing presidency because neither candidate for president, Jacob Zuma nor Kgalema Motlanthe, can meet the needs of the ANC and the state simultaneously. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Those who have been in the presence of Nelson Mandela would know that when he walks into a room, he has the power to change it. The elder statesman has a distinctive aura and you feel it even from a distance. It added to the mystique of the man and, together with his inimitable charm and playful smile, made everyone around him melt. 

The problem with Madiba is that he redefined what constitutes “presidential” because, well, his omnipotent character raised the bar too high. This makes it impossible to conduct an objective assessment of his presidency – the combination of South Africa’s enchanted period of transition and an icon as president colours our judgement somewhat. 

The ANC spent its centenary year celebrating its 12 presidents, hailing the unique leadership qualities each possessed. But leading the party of liberation and being the head of state do not necessarily require the same qualities, which is part of the reason the ANC has been struggling with the question of leadership ever since it came to power. 

The criteria the ANC uses to chose its leaders is based on liberation credentials, discipline and loyalty to the organisation. ANC leaders have never been judged on their knowledge and ability to lead a government. The ANC hit the jackpot when it chose Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Mandela as they possessed the qualities the ANC needed during those phases of the liberation struggle. After the ANC took control of the state, it has tried to synchronise the two positions but chose leaders only suited to one of them. 

Thabo Mbeki made it clear from the start that he did not want to compete with Mandela and his larger than life personality. But Mbeki had something unique about him too. It was power, pure and unadulterated. He was born to lead and he exuded authority. Many people did not know how to relate to his manner and the power he commanded and therefore feared him. This is what led to his undoing within the ANC. 

It was the state that consumed his focus and once he settled into his presidency, he began to treat the ANC with disdain. He exercised his authority on the machinery of the state and tried to use the same approach with the ANC. He had no direct contact with grassroots structures of the party and pronounced the line from the presidency.

At ANC national executive committee (NEC) meetings, Mbeki often infuriated people with his impatience and intolerance of opposing views. Sometimes he would go to the extent of rolling his eyes or cutting people off when they were speaking in order to show his contempt for what they were saying. He would make the closing statement at NEC meetings and his and only his view prevailed. It was no surprise therefore that NEC members showed no mercy when the decision was made to recall Mbeki. 

Jacob Zuma has a completely different personality to that of Mbeki. His down-to-earth nature means that people quickly warm to him and are comfortable in his company. Nobody really fears him. At the height of the battle with Mbeki, his supporters used his geniality to market him as a preferable leader, assuming that his sociable personality would naturally translate into people-centred governance. 

They were wrong. 

Zuma was able to act in a presidential manner during the period when he was fired from government and facing two prosecutions because he was in a fight for his political life. But when he was handed the reins of power, he did not know what to do with them. 

Zuma did not live up to the expectations as his inability to make decisions and lack of capacity to effectively control the levers of power is proving to be the downfall of his presidency. It is also quite obvious that Zuma views the party to be above the state, and he relies on the ANC’s leadership collective for decision-making. 

Some of those campaigning for his second term point out that it was the ANC that decided at its last conference in Polokwane to devolve decision-making powers away from the presidency to the collective. This was to avoid a recurrence of a super-presidency, as was the case under Mbeki. 

But with social and economic conditions in the country plummeting, corruption in the state bourgeoning, poor performance evident at all three levels of government and vast sections of the population growing restless with unemployment and poverty levels, there is, more than ever, a need for decisive and courageous leadership in the state. Those going to the ANC’s Mangaung conference to re-elect Zuma are doing so knowing he is unable to provide this. 

There are no objective criteria which can be used to show Zuma has been a good president. ANC members who are re-electing him are doing so because it serves their political and economic interests to maintain the status quo, and are resistant to leadership change that might interfere with their positions of privilege. 

Others, some of whom are bitter as they cannot access the feeding trough, have vested their hope in Kgalema Motlanthe. As revealed by Daily Maverick  in October, Motlanthe has accepted candidacy for all the positions for which he has been nominated: president, deputy president and NEC member. His supporters claim he would make a better president than Zuma as he does not have a compromised background and is a respected, upstanding figure. Some of them say even by his deportment and manner, Motlanthe is presidential. 

But again they are making the mistake that Zuma’s supporters made before Polokwane – they are judging Motlanthe’s personality and assuming this would translate into a good leadership. Nobody knows what Motlanthe would do if he won the presidency and then had unfettered control of the state machinery. Because of his refusal to enter the election race earlier or engage on the matter, even his supporters do not know what his vision is.

But through the way Motlanthe has conducted himself in the run up to Mangaung, it is obvious that he is also the consummate party man. He has taken the will of the party to the extreme degree, refusing to undertake any campaigning whatsoever and accepting nomination for all three positions he has been proposed for. 

This sets up the party for an almighty and complex election battle. It also compromises the leadership hopes of other candidates Motlanthe’s supporters are backing like Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale, who have also been nominated for deputy president. 

While Motlanthe believes he has done the right thing and his lobbyists say he has displayed remarkable discipline and loyalty to the will of the branches, even though this approach might cost him a position in the ANC top six, they have yet to explain how this would make him a good president of South Africa. 

For some reason, the ANC is disregarding the fact that in 18 months it will face the first real test at the polls since it took power. Whoever the ANC chooses in the next few days to lead it has to be at the top of its election ticket and the party has to convince South Africa’s electorate that either Zuma or Motlanthe has the qualities to be their president. It is truly bizarre that the ANC is not determining now whether the candidates possess the qualities they have to sell when the national elections campaign begins in just over a year. 

It is possible that being presidential in the party and being presidential as state president are two different things. The obvious solution then is to have two different candidates with the requisite attributes to serve in these two positions. 

But Mangaung is now an all or nothing battle and only one person will walk away the victor. Sadly, neither will change the room or the country. DM

Photo: Former South African president, Nelson Mandela (C) smiles as he arrives with African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma (L) and South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki at the Loftus stadium in Pretoria during an  rally organised by the ANC to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday August 2, 2008.  REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)

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