Opinionista Marianne Thamm 10 December 2013

The baobab will dwarf the bonsai

There was no doubt about the sincerity of his sadness and grief as President Jacob Zuma announced the death of Nelson Mandela to the nation on Thursday night with the words, “fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed”.

Dressed in a sombre black suit and reading a speech in his characteristically staccato cadence, Zuma was visibly emotional. But in the light of several weeks’ worth of a disturbing news cycle in relation to the Public Protectors’ report on Nkandla, as well as President Zuma’s security cluster’s attempts at “covering” for No. 1 – it seemed a pity that it was Zuma who had to officially break the sad news to the nation and the world.

As the democratically elected leader of South Africa, we respect the Office of the president, but whether No. 1 respects it as much as we do is a question South Africans are coming to ask more frequently.

While some of us may hope to achieve greatness from standing in close proximity to or in the shade of those who are truly great, in that moment, in paying tribute to a global icon who has come to represent decency, accountability, respect and humility, President Zuma began to look decidedly smaller and smaller.

While the ANC can rightfully claim that Nelson Mandela was shaped by and belongs to the party, Mandela’s influence and example eventually rippled out far beyond the confines of narrow party political politics and ideologies. The unprecedented show of global mourning is evidence of the moral cachet Nelson Mandela brought to the world. In New York, Paris, Nairobi, and elsewhere on the globe, the South African flag has come in recent days to symbolise Mandela and what he stood for. This week our colours, Mandela’s colours, lit up the world.

But President Zuma and the ANC he currently represents should be wary in future of latching onto Brand Mandela to maximise currency in the upcoming elections. While it may seem like a very good idea to harness all the Mandela positives it might, in the long run, come to highlight all Zuma’s negatives.

A quote by Groucho Marx has been banging around in my head in the months that we have been immersed in the series of scandals surrounding President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, Msholozi, No. 1…

It goes like this: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your eyes?”

President Zuma’s personal home, the R206 million ostentatious sprawl of it (or should we say the “uncontrolled creep”?) that has seen it bulge and spill out across the hills of Nkandla, is a powerful physical representation and metaphor for Brand Msholozi, the Zuma Presidency and the ANC he leads.

Unlike Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma began his term in office mired in controversy and scandal. And while at first the citizens of South Africa may have bought the suggestion that it was all a “political conspiracy” and that Msholozi was merely a helpless “victim” and were willing to give him time to prove himself, successive waves of alleged impropriety and a disrespect for the rule of law have become a disturbing and distinguishing feature of his government.

In fact, so many scandals trail President Zuma that is difficult, for even those of us in the media, to hold onto them all. From his fathering of a child with the daughter of an old comrade to “the Spy Tapes”; from Guptagate and Nkandlagate to the Marikana massacre to the shocking waste of billions of Rands by his administration, it is often difficult for anyone to see any positives (and there are a few).

Then there is the behaviour of those who surround Jacob Zuma. The Blue Light Brigade bullies who arrest joggers and swear and smack a press photographer to the ministers who splurge on shoes, expensive holidays and shopping trips, the local councillors who live lavish lives among impoverished communities, and provincial leaders who claim they do not need “dirty votes”.

All of this serves to offer and display an ethos that is far removed from the principled example set by Nelson Mandela.

Make no mistake, Jacob Zuma is a canny, successful and powerful politician, but he is not a gifted or inspiring leader. Should he stray for one moment from a prepared speech, Jacob Zuma is bound to insult and infuriate (do I really need to list the many occasions here? Perhaps not).

And while Mandela may have supported Zuma and clearly had a “soft spot” for Msholozi – supporting him at a 2009 rally in the Eastern Cape, writing him a R1 million cheque to bail him out of debt in 2005 over and above an additional R2 million he gave Zuma in 2000 (half of which went to an educational foundation) – Zuma comes nowhere close to Mandela when it comes to political gravitas and commanding respect.

When Jacob Zuma speaks out against corruption, his lips move but we can’t hear what he’s saying (apologies to Pink Floyd). When he preaches “moral regeneration” we think of the child he fathered out of wedlock(s), the magnificent rise of Nkandla, of influential friends who break the law to land their planes at a National Key Point to attend a lavish wedding.

When the President should take responsibility (Gupta- and Nkandla-gate) he does not. Jacob Zuma and his henchmen look around them for a smaller scapegoat, thinking that this will assuage the public and exonerate him.

Once again we reiterate Marx (the other one:) “Who are you gonna to believe? Me or your eyes?”

Nelson Mandela was the living embodiment of his values and ethics. He walked the walk. While many at this time will resort to empty rhetoric and the shallow clatter of platitudes will drown out the grief, in the end, they will be judged by what they do rather than what they say.

Brand Mandela is good for South Africa. Brand Mandela is good for ordinary South Africans because now, without the traction of his physical presence, we must look inside for the treasures he has left us and we must live these out in our life.

But whether Brand Mandela is good for the current ANC is another matter entirely. Each time Jacob Zuma opens his mouth to speak in the next few weeks, he will open himself up to being compared to the incomparable. Next to the baobab he will be the bonsai. DM

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