Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

How should we remember Zuma’s presidency?

History is a complex social construction but a few grand narratives tend to stick out.

Among other stories we’ll remember Mandela as the reconciliatory president, asking us to throw our “pangas into the sea” and forgive. We’ll remember Mbeki’s poetic appeal to our African identity, an aloof renaissance man and, bitter-sweet, as the statesman who chose dignified submission when fired.

Zuma, we had hoped in 2009, would be Mr Delivery. If Mandela oversaw the constitutional and conceptual framework for our democracy and if Mbeki ensured ministers put large projects into their portfolios, then Zuma had to be the president that finally listened and delivered. The time had come for grassroots materialisation of basic needs and services.

Zuma has disappointed.

His presidency is laced with scandal and eight opposition parties have moved a motion of no-confidence. This is no light matter, as DA parliamentary leader Mazibuko admits. Writing for the Sunday Times (Nov 19 2012) the chief architect of this motion conceded to having a “heavy heart” at the National Assembly, because despite differences of opinion, we all want (desperately need!) Zuma to succeed. This is our country, after all, and we are all the beneficiaries of functional politics and successful policies. The problem, it seems, is that our president fails to embody inspirational leadership and act decisively.

Listening to the Obama campaign for a second term as American president reminded me of the hope and optimism he managed to arouse among millions of young voters who would have otherwise rather watched a movie than go out and vote in an election. Again he managed to empathically engage his audiences and get them to believe “the best is yet to come”. Despite criticism for an underwhelming first term, Obama has a believability about him that makes you feel like he gets the big and small picture. I have never felt inspired or hopeful after listening to our president speak. He is mediocre at best; fake at worst.

Not long ago, in early September, Malema told Ndumiso Ngcobo in a radio interview that “we [the ANC] made a terrible mistake by electing President Zuma, which will never be repeated in the history of our existence … we were in a crisis so we elected him, but we moved from bad to worse”. Malema added: “Zuma has no original ideas of his own.” Had this been a year ago, it would have scandalised the ANCYL. But this low-blow will be written off as sour grapes from a disgruntled Malema in opportunistic attempt to discredit his former ally.

But this was echoed by Mazibuko who wrote that even if Zuma “had discovered one idea of his own” his practice of “extreme delegation” is flawed because his team does not deliver.

When Zuma chose his first Cabinet, adding new ministries and awkwardly renaming old ones, the diversity of faces and surprising talent-spotting softened our view that the populist is sure to fail. But history is quickly showing this to be window-dressing and the charge-sheet being read by the Mazibuko entourage is serious enough for us to really ask: “What good has Jacob Zuma done for us?”

Will he be remembered as the president that caricatured our democracy, who believed our democracy to be a piece of plasticine he could play with and reshape into any odd creation he so desired? When the rules of construction prevent him from playing, he simply allows the rules to be changed, lacking the adaptive courage to rethink his strategy and reconsider his approach. The Secrecy Bill, the proposed insult law to force empty respect and the Traditional Courts Bill that gives autocratic powers to traditional male leaders, are prime examples. Add Marikana, Nkandlagate, the Dalai Lama’s visa denial, a general dumbing down of official political communiqués and Zuma’s three short years already seem like one lifetime too long.

As Mangaung and 2014 approaches, time may be running out for a president whose grand narrative is being written quite unflatteringly. His track record is descending into a laugh-a-minute freak show. But as usual, the joke’s really on us.

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