Jacob Zuma's Rising Star

By Fazila Farouk · 18 Dec 2009

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Picture credit: Fazila Farouk
Picture credit: Fazila Farouk

Sporting an anomalous gaze, President Jacob Zuma stares righteously from Time magazine’s 7th December cover.

Making the cover of Time Magazine has come to symbolise the ultimate accolade and establishment endorsement for rising stars as well as those deemed worthy of redemption. And even if Zuma did only make the cover of Time’s Africa edition, the chief architects of public discourse have indeed remodelled and redeemed him.

"Could Zuma be what South Africa needs?" the magazine’s headline approvingly asks. And with this sweeping acknowledgement, Zuma’s transformation is complete. The once disparaged presidential candidate has been replaced by a pragmatic statesman deeply respectful of his cultural roots.

Including and beyond the pages of Time magazine, the reinvented Zuma is portrayed as the president with the greatest potential to harmonise South Africa’s discordant political landscape. Not quite a messiah, nor one cut from the auspicious fabric of “hope and change,” Zuma is offered as the consummate politician; a player of note whose knowledge of the political game is prised to deliver big dividends.

Such praise for a man at the helm of a country about to host one of the biggest international sporting events is perhaps unsurprising.

But an assessment of Zuma's leadership and performance against the standard set by a world leader who opted for 'radical change' would not be ill considered, especially given the crossroads that South Africa and much of the world finds itself at, viz., the enormous challenge facing humanity as a result of the indisputable relationship between the global economic and ecological crises, in addition to spiralling global inequality, all which require exceptional responses.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power,” said Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States of America (US), the man who boldly freed America’s slaves. 

Power is nothing new to President Zuma. In the past decade, Zuma has spent more time honing his skills inside the privileged golden circle of South Africa’s presidency than he has outside. He became South Africa’s deputy president in 1999 serving in this capacity until mid-2005, when former President Thabo Mbeki unceremoniously dismissed him. 

Zuma triumphed over this adversity, which included an unrelenting media assault. But if one thinks back, much of his six years as South Africa’s second in command are unmemorable.

Tragically, in his current position as president of the country, Zuma threatens to produce the same non-exceptionalism.

It's not that anyone ever expected visionary leadership from Zuma. It's pretty clear to most people that his track record doesn't even hint at any greatness in that direction. 

But for progressives at least there was some tentative expectation of a game change after Mbeki’s stultifying rule and the closely guarded conventionality of his brand of government.

Certainly in the aftermath of the financial crisis when the bankrupt ideas of neoliberal conventionalism were shown up for the sham that they are, most of South Africa (and the world) were ready for a radical rethinking of how our countries are governed, how our economies are structured and most importantly, how our resources are distributed for more equitable social outcomes.

But Zuma's greatest accomplishment since taking office has not been to show any radical departure from the norms and conventions of the past. He has largely been caught up in a game of compromise politics, which has worked very well for him as an individual with political ambitions, but is entirely inappropriate for the needs of the country. 

Compromise politics produce gridlocked endgames. Nowhere has this logjam been more evident than in the ongoing saga of the battle over who controls South Africa’s economic development. 

Bending to unending speculation in mainstream discourse, which also pitted the left against the right in this discussion about who should develop South Africa’s economic policies, Zuma finally ended his silence after seven months. Taking his cue from the balance of power in the public debate, he pronounced that the Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, would not be responsible for developing economic policy.

According to Zuma, Patel will not produce economic policy but coordinate existing economic policy derived from line departments responding to an overarching national country plan developed by Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel.

Zuma's carefully chosen words only hinting at Manuel's dominance over Patel have delivered an economic development plan/policy filled with the promise of inertia for millions of poor South Africans.

Manuel is not known for championing the poor. His thirteen years as minister of finance inside Mbeki's closed circle of conventionality is sufficient evidence of this. His bidding for the revitalization of the once near-dead International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of the financial crisis is cause for even greater concern.

Worse still, Zuma is guilty of allowing the media to drive the terms of this crucial national debate, who, in turn, twist every political discussion into a struggle between the left and the right.

The time has also long since passed for the national debate to move into the ambit of ‘bottom versus top’. Mainstream commentary is simply outmoded in this regard and whether consciously or unconsciously has had the effect of perpetuating South Africa’s unequal status quo.

Our president should take heed of an astute observation made by one of his new appointees, Mac Maharaj, who gave up being a weekly columnist for the Sunday Times to become his special envoy. In his last column Maharaj wrote, "At times the relationship between the government and the media degenerates into abusive squabbling. And the public are treated as curious bystanders: they can watch (or read) but not participate in the debate."

South Africa needs a leader who is prepared to buck conventionality and take some risks on behalf of the public, especially the poor. We don't need a leader who is flattered by and subservient to the elite chattering classes.

Instead we are told to be grateful that the country is in the hands of a finessed politician. This optimism surrounding his newfound popularity stems only from his ability to hold the centre.

This is the mediocrity that South Africans can look forward to for the remainder of Zuma's term and may even have to put up with for a second term given that he has turned out to be such a master in the art of politics.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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Comments

Gabriel Campher
5 Jan

True Leadership

A person that does not initiate is not a leader, but a follower. The question is then; Who is he (JZ Zuma) a follower of - money, status, benefits?
A true leader does not play 'compromise politics', but does anything (in a decisive and visionary manner) in his/her power to advantage the followers. A true leader lose the right to selfishness. He/she is a servant of the People and lead by example. "Leadership plus hypocrisy equals leadership minus credibility" (John Maxwell)

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