Press "Enter" to skip to content

Jacob Zuma: A presidential white elephant

“To be or not to be, that is the question” that confronted Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of the same name. Hamlet is confronted with two important considerations, which pose to him a predicament of sorts; whether to reprimand his mother or protect her; to love Ophelia or reject her; to kill Claudius or continue agonising about it. Indecision is Hamlet’s tragic flaw.

The nature of leadership is decisiveness. The ability to make unpopular decisions when populism and inaction are the most alluring alternatives in the midst of difficulty is a mark of good and exemplary leadership.

Nelson Mandela once said, “It is absolutely necessary for a leader to make decisions without consulting anyone.” Mandela made these remarks when reflecting on events that led to the “talks about talks”, when he initiated preliminary negotiations with the apartheid government during his imprisonment.

The ANC espouses the concept of “collective leadership” which assumes collective responsibility and accountability, though in practice it tends to promote collective lack of accountability; as has been consistently demonstrated by Jacob Zuma through his chronic indecisiveness. Populists and the indecisive people like Zuma thrive on unnecessary adulation and sycophancy, and generally prefer the protracted process of “consultation” when immediate action is required. As a leader you cannot please all people all the time. Make those unpopular decisions in the interest of progress.

Mandela himself admitted that in 1985 when he unilaterally launched negotiations with the PW Botha’s apartheid government was highly unlikely that the ANC leadership would have agreed to negotiations when militancy appeared to be the preferred alternative. He defied the ANC and his own previous stance that “prisoners cannot negotiate” in the interest of advancing the cause of the oppressed masses.

Cyril Ramaphosa, then a powerful trade unionist with the National Union of Mineworkers, said: “We thought he was selling out. I went to see him to tell him, ‘What are you doing?’ It was an unbelievable initiative. He took a massive risk.”

Perhaps what Mandela did not know was that Thabo Mbeki had already been secretly engaging with prominent Afrikaners to discuss the possibility of entering into negotiations. He met with Tony Bloom, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Willie Esterhuyse and other Afrikaner intellectuals and businessmen in 1987 at Dakar. Esterhuyse had attended this meeting with the blessing of his handlers at National Intelligence, which was led by Neil Barnard. Barnard had been facilitating talks between Mandela and with PW Botha.

Mbeki explained that, “the problem at the time was that there was a strong difference of opinion in the ANC about the possibility of [anything] other than an armed seizure of power … There were some people who were not only sceptical but hostile to the idea. They saw it as selling out, treachery … you couldn’t convince them about the fact that in reality the struggle was evolving away from an insurrectionary path.”

It appears that insurrectionists like Joe Slovo and Christ Hani could not imagine anything but the seizure of power. Had the nauseating obsession with process of consultation been complied with all during this critical period of the struggle for liberation, freedom may not have come as soon as it did. As Richard Stengel wrote in the Times magazine, a leader must lead from the front.

The problem we currently have is that a supposed leader in the name of Jacob Zuma is neither leading from the front nor from the back. He is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Our very own Hamlet. South Africa desperately needs leadership. Government is plagued by extreme corruption and lack of service delivery. The ANC in their discussion documents for the forthcoming national general council claims to be concerned about “corruption, power struggles and moral decay”. We are all seriously concerned as well. However, despite all these concerns nothing is being done by government nor is the president showing leadership in addressing these issues. Nor is he even pretending to be providing leadership. We cannot keep debating issues. A debate is remedy that President Lover Lover consistently prescribes for all societal problems. (**blank stare**)

As one columnist indicated, we have a presidential white elephant. Our economy is continuing to bleed jobs while our peers in the developing world are showing remarkable recovery from the recent global financial crisis. What the public desperately clamour for is the president to exercise the same enthusiasm and commitment in discharging his constitutional duties as he does in conducting extra-marital affairs. We have been hearing about evaluation of the performance of Ministers for a long time now; and there has not been any traction. How difficult is it really to assess their performance? Who assesses Zuma’s performance? And how do ministers perform when some like Ebrahim Patel don’t seem to know what their job description is.

The question of who is responsible for macroeconomic policy reared its head again at the recent Cabinet lekgotla; instead of finally giving direction, Zuma suggested a special Cabinet meeting to sort out the “economic roadmap”. It is not clear how exactly that would resolve the issue of who is actually responsible for macro-economic policy. Zuma’s inaction and indecisiveness borders on serious dereliction of his constitutional duties. He is enjoined by the Constitution to develop and implement national policy. Failure on part of government is failure of the president to discharge his constitutional mandate. Our Constitution does not make provision for a ceremonial president. If the task at hand overwhelms Zuma; he may follow on the example of his idol, Nelson Mandela, and delegate day-to-day function of running government to his deputy. Mandela focused on nation building and reconciliation when his deputy Thabo Mbeki ensured that the national executive discharged their duty of service to the public.

Jacob Zuma should no fear in anyway that the public would judge him if he admitted his inadequacy as President. We have already judged him. What we need now is action on part of government to fulfil its commitment of a better life for all.

South Africa is still very much polarised along racial lines. It appears that Zuma’s government pinned its hopes on the hosting of the Soccer World Cup to bridge the racial divide; forgetting that the collective euphoria arising out of such epic events are momentary. Perhaps in the spirit of “collective leadership”, Zuma and his Cabinet suffered collective amnesia in respect of the fleeting impact that 1995 Rugby World Cup had. For Zuma to ask us to keep flying the flag is an insult to the process of reconciliation. Patriotism should be inspired by achievements of government; and the general hope of a better future, not a misinformed instruction by the president.

It does not assist Zuma’s cause as president to allow his supporters and defend their singing about killing “boere”. Challenges confronting society do not need misguided militancy but clarity of purpose towards making South Africa a united and prosperous nation.

If “to lead or not to lead” is the question confronting Jacob Zuma. We urge him to consider the former or go back to Nkandla and look after his wives and concubines. He must stop behaving like an adolescent that thrives on adulation from peers. The greatest peril of populism in a country with high unemployment, high levels of poverty, entrenched corruption and lack of service delivery is that we become the victims.

We may just need collective therapy to overcome this tragedy.

Author

  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.