All through our national discourse, the one thing that seems to keep coming back is how bad our president is. Many bemoan his lack of leadership, others regret they ever supported him. Could he really be that bad? Or is the joke on us? Is it we who have failed to see his style of leadership and governance despite our claims to be educated, thinking and analytical people?
Have we completely misunderstood President Zuma’s strategic brilliance? What if Zuma is the all-knowing and deeply thoughtful leader who has decided, through his actions, and not his words, to bestow upon all South Africans leadership and self confidence?
One has to marvel at the president’s way of speaking and of doing. One can’t help but be at awe of his refusal to answer questions with straight and detailed answers. How the man can, dexterously, speak an entire paragraph and still say nothing. A typical answer to any question to the president is, “Yes, there are certain things that the government has been tasked to do. As a cabinet, we are looking into those things very carefully. We are not just going to act in a particular manner without giving due consideration to the relevant facts and without investigation. Once we have done that, in a reasonable time period, we will then come back with a particular answer and way forward. We have received certain reports on specific questions and complaints, and we are studying these very carefully. I myself have said we have to move very fast on these matters, and instructed the relevant ministers to work very hard. Of course, if South Africans are not happy with a particular conclusion or course of action, then this is a matter we must open up for debate. This is a democracy. In a democracy, you must accept that we have debate issues and reach a common conclusion.”
How can one not be impressed by the president’s Olympian skill in avoiding answering questions we think he should answer? And thus we must ask: What if we fail to understand that within these words the president is asking citizens to think for themselves, to formulate opinions and, indeed, come to their own conclusions?
What if Jacob Zuma decided that his perceived “failure to lead” would be a way to force us to look for leadership within ourselves? It has been said that many South Africans seem to have put the tools down after the African National Congress came into power, and waited that the government would provide housing and jobs as they had promised. As Ferial Haffajee tweeted during the Spear debate, “People seem to need a hero, but if you cut your teeth in progressive politics, you’ll know we are each our own leaders.”
Part of what we most hate about the president is his lifestyle, with numerous wives and partners and many children. It can be argued that it is because of this lifestyle that he ended up at the mercy of now convicted criminal Schabir Shaik, who loaned him money for school fees for his children and the building of his home, putting him under the cloud of corruption. What if this whole debacle was a way for us to relook at our cultures and customs and revaluate them with respect to the current social and economic system? To ask whether we may still, and should still, be holding on to these or doing away with them completely, if Zuma is any example.
Dozens of young Xhosa men lost their lives to custom this winter, and many their male organs. Within this context, we are forced to ask, are these customs worthy of our observance? Jacob Zuma, with his own life, asks us to look again, to question and to find different answers and ways of life. Despite what we say, this man leads by example.
In this context, Winnie Mandela reportedly said she wanted to champion a single partner culture in our fight against HIV/Aids but couldn’t because the president was failing in this regard. But what if the president was saying, “Use me as an example to show how bad the results can be if you choose this kind of life.” Isn’t this the moment that women such as Winnie Mandela should speak out because this president has given them an opportunity and example to do so?
The president has in his cabinet of 34 no less than 14 women, many of whom head critical ministries such as education, public service, defence and international affairs. This president presides over an organization that has a national executive committee of which half are women, including two senior officials.
What if this Women’s Day he challenges them to stand up for the education of their children, and has thus been slow to action in this regard. What if this president has dared women in his own fold to stand up, sometimes against him, to claim authority and the rights which are theirs in a democratic and free society?
What if Jacob Zuma, in his much regrettable leadership with respect to education, is forcing all of us to contribute in views and actions to the kind of education we want, as active participants in the education of our children and brothers and sisters? What if the president is, in a cunning way, forcing teachers and their unions to be active participants and agents of progress in our education system? We have already heard the wonderful stories of teachers and principals using their own money and using creative ways to deliver education to our children in the face of government failure. These stories and many others of initiative and survival teach us of our spirit and concern for one another.
The president of our republic has been accused of being ineffective as the president of the governing party. What if he is challenging young men and women of the African National Congress to rise up and reclaim an organization which is faltering. What if he is also challenging men and women across all of society to stand up, as he did in his youth, and participate actively in the politics of the day, in starting new political and social formations which are in line with their own values and aspirations?
What if this president, who some have been accused of laziness, stays up night after night, crafting new ways to challenge us to be a better and active citizenry? That while we think he made legal blunders in appointments, and in perhaps his own personal standing, is forcing us as citizens to look at our legal system and constitution and ask if it serves the people.
What if Jacob Zuma, in his much publicized “failures” has once again, as he did through his early life as fighter for freedom and human rights, laid down his reputation and legacy so that all of us may recognize our responsibility and take over the baton?
What if, as he giggles through interviews and press conferences, he is actually amused at how slow we are in “catching his drift” and responding to the challenges he has put before us?
No one can doubt that Zuma, as he demonstrated in the struggle for freedom, his service in critical ANC structures and his winning against the very educated and indeed clever Thabo Mbeki, proved his patriotism and intellectual capacity, no matter how unconventional many of us may find his ways. What if he asks us today, in a very practical way, to step up to the plate? DM
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine