South Africa, Politics

Op-Ed: South Africa, where The President is not The Leader too

By Stephen Grootes 5 May 2016

On Wednesday, in Parliament, after the usual pleasantries had been observed (the shouting and screaming that marks the traditional out-chucking of the EFF), the ANC benches stood up to applaud President Jacob Zuma. He was presenting his budget speech, the budget of the Presidency. Parliament being Parliament, he was exercising political power, explaining the choices he had made as president. But, as the defences his supporters mount for him become increasingly legal and technical, it is equally obvious that he is president only technically. Legitimacy? He lost it long ago, somewhere along the road that led us to the current sad state of affairs. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In June 2005, just two weeks after Judge Hilary Squires found that Schabir Shaik was guilty of corruption for the payments he had made to Zuma, the National Prosecuting Authority announced it was charging Zuma with corruption. About a week later, on 29 June, Zuma appeared in the squalid building that was then the Durban Magistrate’s Court. The night before, outside a building whose ugliness was matched only by the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, a first of what became many night vigils was held by his supporters.

I arrived there fairly late in the evening. I started by walking around, microphone in my hand, asking the people there why they were going to spend their night in such difficult surroundings. Then, I started to ask why they were supporting Zuma.

To my urban (and yes, white) sensibilities, I couldn’t quite understand what he had that other leaders didn’t. (Bear in mind, we’re talking 2005 here; Thabo Mbeki ruled the roost in those days.) The answers, when they came, didn’t make much sense to me. Perhaps I was too young, and too uninformed, to even start understanding the issues like political identification, trust, sense of belonging and shared destiny, the feelings that drive voters everywhere to have “someone like me” in power. But in the end, I figured that these people simply believed Zuma was going to make their lives better, he was going to be a better leader than anyone else.

Fast-forward to 2016: By now, Zuma has surely proved the hopes of the people holding a cold night vigil to be badly wrong.

To lead, you need to have legitimacy. You cannot lead without it. If there is one thing that Nelson Mandela had, precious and hard to attain, was legitimacy. He won that through his time on Robben Island, but also because of what he said and the seminal human being that he was. It was also, simply, that he was a true leader. In those hours after the killing of Chris Hani that we have been reminded of recently, only Mandela was able to calm tempers. He did it by talking directly and honestly. There was no guessing about what he thought, or what he wanted to happen. Crucially, he did not lie.

Mbeki had legitimacy as well, to a point. It started to leak from him when we realised he HIV/AIDS universe was more akin to the opening credits of a Loony Tunes episode. And once we understood that, he could never come back from the Legitimacy Neverland.

Zuma has been different. When we start to ask why he has no legitimacy at the moment, we must remember that this didn’t start with the Constitutional Court over Nkandla, or the High Court in Pretoria’s ruling that the NPA’s decision to withdraw corruption charges against him in 2009 was incorrect. Or Waterkloof landings. Or Marikana. Or Central African Republic. Or a child with a friend’s daughter. Or sex with another friend’s daughter.

All scandals aside, the reason that the ANC’s national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa cannot say he’s proud to be led by Zuma isn’t even because of Zuma’s problems around the Guptas.

It is impossible to think of one single issue in which Zuma has taken the lead and led successfully. Without legitimacy, you cannot lead.

Zuma’s supporters, of course, will claim that Zuma has led on AIDS. Well, bluntly, he has not. He, like so many other people in the ANC, chose to remain silent during the lunacy years. He only raised his voice, just before Polokwane as it happens, because he realised the wind was beginning to blow in his favour. Before then he had even done the one thing that the leader of the Moral Regeneration Movement was not supposed to do: had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman who was half his age, and hoped a shower would protect him afterwards.

Then there will be people who will claim that Zuma led on crime. He did, for a time, lead the agenda on crime. He told the police they needed to be more assertive when dealing with people who were armed. And while being very careful not to say that they should shoot first and ask questions later, he did say the police should not hold back.

Cue Marikana.

On Wednesday, in Parliament, Zuma did not discuss at all the latest ejection of the EFF. At least he didn’t do what he did the first time they were forcibly removed, in February last year. On that occasion he didn’t mark the solemnity of the violence in the National Assembly with any kind of statement, he didn’t express sadness at what had happened, he didn’t try to lead any kind of healing process for the nation. No, instead of doing all of that, he laughed.

It’s really hard to give any leader legitimacy when that is how they behave.

It is even harder when this same person is happy to preside over what is supposed to be a national event, the celebration of Freedom Day, and turns it into an ANC rally. One day, Julius Malema and a large group of his friends are going to gatecrash such an event clad in red. The violence that will follow will be partly a direct result of Zuma’s actions. That is the kind of President we have, a man who doesn’t care about the rest of the country, as long as he is safe within the ANC.

But the real reason that Zuma has no legitimacy, that he has completely and utterly lost the ability to lead us as a nation, is that he does not do what Madiba did. He does not tell the truth. He does not take us, as a nation, into his confidence. He doesn’t walk with us. He doesn’t talk to us.

Think of it like this. Zuma has been President of this country for the last seven years. He came into office just a few months after Barak Obama. Obama is now so popular that YouTube features clips of his best “comebacks”. He has credibility, and legitimacy. When a heckler disrupts him and demands that he stops the deportation of illegal immigrants, he doesn’t shut the person down, instead he explains that he doesn’t have that legal power. Can you imagine Zuma ever explaining any limit to his own power, or even engaging honestly about his own legal issues? Obama is, bluntly, despite his time in high political office, the kind of person you want your child to look up to, to emulate. Zuma?…

Even Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi surely can’t say that.

There is only one person to blame for this. It was not because of apartheid that Zuma took money from Shaik. Anyone who claims that is removing the power of agency from Zuma is saying that apartheid won by removing any power of independent thought from him. It was not because of apartheid, or any other individual, that Zuma exercised pressure on Advocate Mokotedi Mpshe to have the charges against him removed. And even if we are going to push our generosity past its absolute limit and accept that apartheid was responsible for his decisions around Shaik and say that everything that followed was because of his need to stay out of jail, that still would not explain his relationship with the Gupta family. And let’s not even start with the wholesale desperation he brought to government departments, parastatals, institutions of democracy… the list is exceedingly long.

The ultimate power of political legitimacy is this: It means people will accept your decisions, and be part of implementing them, even if they disagree with them. But if you don’t have the legitimacy to do that, you are going to create a situation in which people who disagree with you will simply ignore you, and everything that you stand for, including your party. That well explains why our country is so fractious and divided right now. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa attends a plenary session titled – Africa’s Role in the New Reality – on the opening day of the World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 in Cape Town South Africa 04 May 2011. EPA/NIC BOTHMA