South Africa

Zuma, Mbeki, and the shifting sands of public perception

By Ranjeni Munusamy 24 June 2013

Once upon a time, a people detested their president, believing he was too aloof, too disconnected, too scholarly, too proud to admit his mistakes and impervious of criticism. Five years after dispensing with him, the people detested their new president, believing he is too weak, too corruptible, too backward, contemptuous of the Constitution and lacking the faculty to run the country. And suddenly the other guy they dispensed with started to look like the messiah again. Perhaps everyone is destined to look flawed after Nelson Mandela, or perhaps the presidency is like coaching Bafana Bafana – you really cannot win. Or maybe South Africans keep getting the president they deserve. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In the 1995 movie The American President, starring Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, a fictional president of the United States, the plot builds to a heated dialogue between him and White House aide Lewis Rothschild, played by Michael J Fox.

Rothschild: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

Shepherd: “Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

The thirst for leadership is so palpable in South Africa that we create mirages all the time – sometimes believing that a highly flawed character can miraculously transform into a beloved people’s president, that a man with no ambition or vision can metamorphosise into a great leader, or that a person we once rejected for leading us down the wrong path can come back and rescue us.

Perceptions about Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki are neither constant nor uniform. All three of South Africa’s post-Mandela presidents have people who love them and despise them, and people who change their views about them according to their deeds and the passing of time.

All three were outstanding leaders in the liberation struggle and transition to democracy. All three made it to the highest of the land.

And now it is not clear how history will eventually record them.

As criticism of President Zuma’s presidency mounts, the man who once took the harshest action against him by firing him from government made a rare appearance in the spotlight. Former president Mbeki’s interview with newly launched talk radio station PowerFM was a media coup, attracting a large listenership and social media following. It was perhaps incidental that the interview with Mbeki was conducted at such a low point in Zuma’s presidency, such that it would generate immense nostalgia for the time he was head of the ANC and the country.

As Mandela was preparing to hand over the reins, South Africa and the world were primed for the rise of the ANC’s prodigious leader – highly intelligent and sophisticated, and the crown prince of the ANC dynasty. In time, and with the Mbeki administration plagued by controversies over Aids, the arms deal, his approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe and alleged manipulation of the state security agencies, his came to be seen as an “imperial presidency”. The qualities that people once loved about Mbeki became the qualities they eventually resented.

Jacob Zuma’s rise to power could not have been more different to that of Mbeki. Scandal and controversy surrounded him during his time as deputy president, eventually leading him to be fired and charged with corruption. A few months later, he was charged with rape, having to fight face two serious trials, which could have both resulted in jail time. Instead, Zuma rose on the back of public support as the ultimate political underdog, challenged Mbeki for leadership of the ANC and won it. When Zuma took over the state, he was to be the president Mbeki was not – connected with the people, a listening, responsive president, someone who understood the burden of the poor.

But Zuma’s administration also turned out to be a huge disappointment, marred in controversy, plagued by poor leadership, corruption and delivery failure. With no obvious successor – Motlanthe wrote himself out of the plot – the country is in desperate search of a new hero. It needs to create a new mirage of a leader who can possibly rescue South Africa from the doldrums and chart a way to the promised land.

South Africa is so desperate for this saviour that last Thursday night, Mbeki’s mellow ponderings during his radio interview made many long for the firm hand of his leadership – the very hand that was once seen as an iron fist. His axing from the presidency and exit from active politics has numbed hitherto fierce perceptions about his leadership style. The fact that he went quietly and with dignity and has not engaged in domestic politics has led to him regaining some of the respect he lost during the last few years of his own term. Even during the radio interview, the opportunity presented itself for him to comment on the weaknesses of the Zuma administration. He didn’t.

So, in a bizarre twist of fate, Zuma and Mbeki have traded places in the public mind. The former underdog has become the villain, the former tyrant has become the lesser evil.

For many years now, South Africans were happy to be fooled, prepared to look away when the obvious flashing lights appear on the horizon of presidential character, happy to accept the lowest common denominator, hopeful that what they saw is just a blimp and that the new leader will always eventually measure up. What they would never accept in their own lives, character failures, lack of vision and delivery, inability to see clearly even when the problem is hitting one in the face – somehow all these got forgiven when the president of this country is concerned.

In the midst of the shifting sands, South Africa has no idea what kind of leader it needs right now.

And so we are stuck chasing mirages in the desert of bad leadership, drinking the sand and hoping the water will come eventually. It will not. For as long as South Africans keep accepting bad leadership, we will keep getting bad leaders. DM

Photo: Mbeki and Zuma at the ANC’s Polokwane conference (Greg Marinovich)

Gallery

While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.

Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé are our contribution to this unshakeable mission. It is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.

Join our mission to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.


SCORPIO

Bain Files, Part 2 – Bain & Co instigated and celebrated the departure of SARS COO Barry Hore

By Pauli Van Wyk

In the final two years of his life Van Gogh averaged about three paintings per week.