The opposition’s motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma coincided with the Shakespearean fall of CIA director David Petraeus. Both Zuma and Petraeus know about modern insurgencies. Petraeus wrote the US Army counterinsurgency strategy handbook when America was losing her wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zuma, with less success, is trying to fight off democratic insurgents.
I draw a comparison between Petraeus and Zuma because both of their careers were marked out by the soldier’s unquestioning observance of hierarchy and iron discipline; not democracy and dissent. Zuma, we forget, was a product of the banned ANC’s hard-line security apparatus built on the totalitarian logic of Stalinism.
This is why, despite working for the other side, I could not help but feel a brief twinge of pity for the hapless president two weeks ago. For two excruciating hours, he was bombarded by the opposition insurgents lobbing rhetorical cluster bombs at him.
So, last week, I stood in the balcony above the Speaker’s chair when the chamber was empty. I think it is important when you work for the other side to always put yourself in the opponent’s shoes.
The raised lectern from where the president, ministers and MPs speak is dead centre between the government and opposition benches. The opposition leaders and MPs sit off-stage, on the right hand side of the horseshoe-shaped forum.
The layout should benefit the president. As he remains on his feet for the entire session, he is spared the awkward bobbing up and down of a British prime minster at question time in the House of Commons. Nor does he have to twist his back awkwardly to hear questions from his own side. Zuma should, in normal conditions of war, be able to dominate the scene; to use it, in Theodore Roosevelt’s term, as his wonderful “bully pit” of the nation.
Setting and style aside, what about the substance?
Last year, I briefly worked alongside a former civil servant who helped prepare former British prime minister Tony Blair for question time. In Britain, the prime minister faces the ordeal for 30 minutes at midday every Wednesday. He told me how, when he went to Downing Street on Tuesday evenings, Blair, with lawyer efficiency, meticulously laid out indexed cards on the cabinet table with the questions that had been tabled.
A simple index binder is prepared for every prime minister with, what Margaret Thatcher called, “killer facts”. Thatcher, as Blair did, made a point of finding out where each MPs policy and personal interests lay. Insurgents rarely laid a punch on them. On the rare occasion they did, it was to devastating effect.
As I watched Zuma on television, I wondered who was helping him prepare his binder of “killer facts”. Then I realised: no one has written Zuma’s counterinsurgency strategy to adjust to the changing nature and methods of the modern democratic insurgencies.
My sense is that he is not briefed by political advisers. You could cut the president’s speeches up with a pair of scissors and see the staple lines dividing each department’s submission. No “heads of argument” is threaded through them. In the same way, when opposition questions are tabled, civil servants from the relevant departments submit procedural answers to the presidency shorn of any political or policy context.
He lacks someone of the calibre of Professor Jakes Gerwel, who passed away today and who helped Nelson Mandela personify national magnanimity and reconciliation through parse words. Or further afield, to the US, a Peggy Noonan figure to help him chisel out a few simple themes wrapped up in powerful prose.
Noonan crafted some of Ronald Reagan’s most famous lines that played up his fabled honeyed delivery. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, a million school boys and girls dreams might have crashed to Earth amid the twisted shards of metal, glass and vaporised astronauts. But no! What person of my generation will forget Reagan’s magnificent peroration in his television tribute: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God’ “.
A president’s words matter in times of national tragedy. Zuma was especially vulnerable to the insurgents this past August because he failed to muster the words to reassure a stricken nation after Marikana. He knew that the tragedy bore deep into the soil and plates of the country’s collective memory of exploitive mineral extraction and human suffering.
Zuma is also blindsided by the opposition’s lack of what South African political scientists call “etiquette”. In the traditional Zulu culture of northern KwaZulu-Natal, it can be career limiting to push back against an authority figure or elder.
Women too are routinely treated as subservient vassals. Rian Malan in his review of American journalist Douglas Foster’s After Mandela deliciously retells how Zuma’s daughter, Thuthu, confided to the author that not only could she could not name more than half of her father’s children, but that she suffered “a precipitous demotion in status” when visiting Nkandla.
So this is it: Zuma never found an authentic voice. Even if he had, there was no political message to communicate. Above all, he failed to adjust from the dissent-crushing Stalinist machine of the ANC mission-in-exile to today’s fog of war: noisy democracy. Those damn pesky insurgents – especially the women – won’t let up.
The insurgents are not linked and some don’t like each other: opposition leaders, judicial figures, at least one former president, churches, Zackie Achmat, a Nobel prize-winning archbishop, journalists, former friends and — perhaps most lethal of all — are, what I style, the ANC’s “Knights Templars”. These knights will, I predict, fight to the last in 2013 to prevent the ANC being smashed to smithereens.
The insurgents are closing in on Zuma now from all directions. He’ll be gone soon.