South Africa, World, Politics

A tale of two speeches: Zuma and Obama’s legacies, in their own words

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 January 2017

It is perhaps unfair to compare the speech that President Jacob Zuma delivered on Sunday with that of US President Barack Obama on Tuesday. Obama is a masterful orator and throughout his presidency delivered speeches that made us laugh, brought us to tears, gave hope and helped us dream. Zuma too could bring you to tears, only because his speeches are so mind-numbingly boring, they could ferment fruit. These were meant to be legacy speeches – Obama’s last as president and Zuma’s last ANC January 8th statement. But history will remember only one of them. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Zuma’s final speech to the ANC will probably be the opening address at the party’s 54th national conference, which is to be held in Gauteng in December. It will be a political report on his presidency and the organisation he leads. Thereafter, he will hand over the reins to a new ANC president, who will deliver the closing address.

Much has been written about the state of the ANC under Zuma’s leadership and all that went horribly wrong. But it is helpful to look back at what he himself set out to do. Zuma delivered his first speech as ANC president at the closing session of the party’s Polokwane conference in December 2007.

Among other things, he said:

Comrades, I am called upon to lead this multiclass organisation and ruling party, succeeding Comrade Thabo Mbeki, a comrade, friend and brother. I have known and worked with Cde Mbeki for over 30 years. I must confess I never thought that the two of us would one day compete for the same position in the ANC! However, contesting positions does not make us enemies.

The conference is now behind us and we will continue to work together to unite and build a stronger ANC. There is likely to be anxiety regarding the existence of two presidents, one of state and the other of the party. There is no reason for uncertainty or fear in any quarter. Comrade Mbeki and I, both as members of the ANC, first and foremost, will develop smooth working relations between government and the ruling party, assisted by the leadership collective.”

Well, we all know how that turned out. Nine months later, Mbeki was kicked out as state president – which did not say much about that 30-year comradeship, friendship and brotherhood.

Zuma also said:

There is therefore no reason why the domestic or international business community or any other sector should be uneasy. I tried to calm these fears before the conference during my meetings with various business groupings at home and abroad. Our resolutions on economic matters will bring about closure and certainty on these matters.”

Zuma’s presidency brought about unprecedented economic volatility, mostly from his actions and turbulence in his government causing increased political risk. The domestic and international business community has been justifiably jittery about his leadership.

On the state of the ANC, Zuma said:

The leadership must not fail to address problems within the organisation. A lesson we have learnt from this conference is that if the leadership fails to resolve issues, or to grasp the feelings of membership on issues that concern the movement and instead appears to perpetuate the problems, the membership takes over and asserts its authority in ways that we may not be comfortable with. However, we must endeavour to always relate to each other in a comradely manner, regardless of how strongly we feel about issues.

Going forward, we commit ourselves as the incoming NEC (national executive committee) collective that we will never allow any problem to go unresolved. Every problem or issue must be discussed thoroughly and be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.”

On this point, you can only laugh. Zuma has done the exact opposite to what he set out to do and lives in denial about the crises in his organisation. The ANC suffered a massive drop in support at the polls last year precisely because it was disconnected from people on the ground and perpetuated the problems. It allowed many of these problems to go unresolved, including serious instances of corruption, bad leadership and delivery failures.

The ANC’s annual January 8th statement represents the views of the NEC. At the party’s 105th anniversary celebration on Sunday, Zuma delivered a truncated version of what he deemed to be the important parts. It is meant to be a mission statement for the year that guides the work of the organisation and mandates government’s plan of action.

Since this was Zuma’s last chance to deliver the statement, it was also the opportunity for him to look back at his achievements and acknowledge what should have been done better. But in his last year as ANC leader, he could also have set out to repair his damaged legacy and make an attempt to have history remember him in a more forgiving way.

At this gathering of the ANC’s diehard supporters, Zuma had the opportunity to acknowledge his contribution to the organisation losing its way and pledge to do things differently. Instead Zuma trawled through the ANC’s history and trumpeted rhetoric about the need for unity. There was no clear game plan for the year or any stated intention to patch up his legacy.

Zuma did however acknowledge some of the ANC’s failures.

We have not yet achieved all our goals. Our society is still plagued by instances of racism and pervasive sexism and patriarchy. We can do more to promote democracy and too many people are still living in poverty.” 

On the state of the organisation, Zuma said:

Today, our movement faces serious challenges to its unity. Divisive tendencies such as factionalism, gatekeeping and manipulation of internal processes exist at all levels of the ANC, the ANC Leagues, the Alliance and the Mass Democratic Movement. These tendencies inhibit our ability to give decisive leadership to society.

The people have told us that we are too busy fighting each other and we do not pay sufficient attention to their needs. Our own research and interactions with members of the ANC demonstrate clearly that the people abhor the apparent preoccupation with personal gain. People are clear: their main priorities are jobs, fighting crime and corruption.”

But there was nothing memorable in Zuma’s address and nothing to indicate that he was concerned about his legacy. He appears to dwell under the misconception that all his scandals and controversies are created by the media and his opponents, and that once his anointed successor is elected, the dust will settle and he will be exulted in a Mandela-like retirement – only much wealthier. Therefore he does not see the need to repair his legacy.

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, knows that his successor will do everything possible to destroy his legacy and achievements. At his final press conference in mid December, Obama gave a rundown of all that had been done during his presidency, including lowering unemployment, giving access to healthcare to 20-million Americans and the diplomatic successes in relations with Iran and Cuba.

And he acknowledged his shortcomings. He said the continuing conflict in Syria was “one of the hardest issues I faced”. He spoke at length about his administration’s approach to the civil war in Syria, explaining the decision not to commit ground troops. The press conference was however taken up with current events, including the outcome of the elections and the Russian hacking.

Obama’s address in Chicago on Tuesday was therefore less nuts and bolts and more an emotional goodbye in the final days of his presidency. He acknowledged the difficulties and complexities of race relations and discrimination in the United States. He also admitted that his administration had made mistakes.

Watch: President Barack Obama’s full farewell speech (PBS)

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”

And while many in the US and around the world fear the onset of what is destined to be a bizarre and terrifying era under Donald Trump, Obama attempted to assuage those concerns. But he also urged Americans to get involved and defend their democracy.

If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”

Obama ended his uplifting and poignant speech by asking the people of his country to believe.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours. I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”

It is wholly unfair to expect Zuma to say anything comparable, this week or at any time before he heads off into retirement. He is simply incapable of inspiring anybody, let alone millions of people on the planet. But somewhere amid the obfuscation and rhetoric, perhaps he will find it in himself to be presidential and acknowledge that South Africa deserved better.

Obama will be replaced by a ranting lunatic who will obliterate all sense of dignity from the US presidency. So perhaps in a few weeks our president will not look as inadequate and we will come to appreciate his empty, boring speeches. If Zuma’s legacy is “He was not as bad as Trump”, it will be an achievement. DM

Photo: President of the United States Barack Obama (R) welcomes President of South Africa Jacob Zuma (L) during the Nuclear Security Summit at the Washington Convention Center in Washington DC, USA, 12 April 2010. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS



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