President Jacob Zuma is dominating headlines and dinner conversations, sadly. Between calls for him to fall, calls for him to stand down and calls for him to step up and take responsibility, the president is either the most fighting fit or thick-skinned leader of a democracy anywhere — Humpty Dumpty seems glued to the seat of his increasingly onerous office.
When rising to power the president umshini wami’d his way into the hearts and minds of ANC voters. Here was a man that would bring about the change they wanted; jobs for the jobless, land for the landless and power to the powerless. In his 2014 inauguration speech Zuma praised the “generations of selfless freedom fighters, who made untold sacrifices” for freedom and he then promised to improve the “performance of the state” and to ”eradicate corruption and inefficiency in the public service”.
By all accounts, this month the very people who danced Zuma into office are beginning to echo back to the president awuleth’ umshini wami (bring me my machine gun), but the object of their ire has changed.
President Zuma was booed at Sammy Marks Square this week. Sammy Marks, a late 1800 industrialist who made his money during the mining boom on the Witwatersrand and coalfields of the southern Transvaal, is said to have been allowed the extraordinary “privilege” of using the state mint for a day to strike 215 gold tickeys. He used these coins as mementos for his relatives and close friends, including the then president Paul Kruger and members of the Volksraad. It would seem that using the state’s capacity to print money is a habit not new to the close friends of South African presidents.
The prospect is that President Zuma will leave office before the end of his term. Amid the crescendo of calls for this to happen, it behoves us to think about what happens after Zuma? What kind of leader do we want?
Talking to Wenzile Madonsela, daughter of Public Protector Thuli Mandonsela and secretary general of the EFF University of Pretoria youth branch, I asked her, “Are we in 1976 when Hector Pieterson paid the ultimate price?” She replied, “No, we are in the French Revolution”.
Visiting Hartwell House, the 17th century countryside mansion in the UK last year, I learned about how the exiled King of France Louis XVIII lived there for five years from 1809. He apparently had the habit of inviting the peasants to his great hall during opulent meals where they would participate, by watching him binge.
What South Africans need to understand is that the structural exclusion of our current economic order amounts to a bourgeoisie feeding frenzy in the view of some.
South Africa is going to need a leader that understands both revolutionary politics and pragmatic developmental economics. If we took a considered approach to selecting a leader, we would do well to pick someone who knows how to knit a narrative that people can believe in. A revolutionary storyteller par excellence. Yet, a leader who knows how to build industrial communities out of raw materials and untapped human potential. We need the moral philosophy of Adam Smith to school Reaganomics’ satisfaction with a trickle, and convey to our ruling class the enlightened self-interest inherent in fair distribution.
We want a leader who can turn old monopolies into national champions for the working class.
“We will never be free from racism until we get away from the disease that says, I can only feel tall if you are short.” So says Professor Tinyiko Maluleke of the University of Pretoria. South Africans seem to be infected with a particular psychosis where their internal self-perception is inversely related to their perception of others. This is not the fountain from which human dignity and social harmony flows.
The unconquerable spirit that former president Nelson Mandela is said to have gleaned from William Henley’s 1875 Invictus, was rooted in the understanding that no matter the darkness of the moment, fearless dignity and a head unbowed arises from the mastery of one’s own fate and the captaining of one’s own soul. Henley’s insight was that it is not in the menacing and bludgeoning of others that horrors done are made right.
The Afrikaner nationalists took their disharmonious tone from ordained minister Stephen du Toit whose Afrikaner Bond embodied the self-identifying nexus between “land”, “language” and “nation” as borne out by his book Die Geskiedenis van ons Land in die Taal van ons Volk (The History of Our Land in the Language of Our People). The Boers were constructing their narrow identity from the ruins of British oppression just as South Africans today are constructing theirs from the ruins of apartheid. Yet, in their construction they wrongly juxtaposed the assumed inhumanity of others as distinct from their own humanity.
Our nation needs a leader now who can carry forward the task of explaining who we are as a multiracial people in the absence of a group that serves the cynical purpose of outcasts. This must be done not by polarising the branches of our national family tree on the basis of land and language but by dealing fairly with the contested issues that embody the real legacies of oppression.
We need a leader for the nation not a leader for a portion thereof.
Polity of hope
Derived from the French notion of politie, with its roots in the Greek politeia meaning citizenship or government, and polis meaning city, today we talk of polity as the form or process of organising society’s affairs and we look largely to the state to do so on our behalf.
Much is said in South Africa about issues of state capacity, government’s ability to deliver social goods and the responsibility of the private sector in addressing South Africa’s ills. But whichever way one arrives at a prognosis for South Africa, the fact remains that we have decades of toil ahead before we reach any kind of palatable socioeconomic apex where citizens will be content.
This means that we need hope. Not the fluffy and vague type that drowns out pressing realities in favour of an upbeat disposition, also known as denial. South Africa needs a president that is able to present a credible and inspiring view of the future around which South Africans can rally. Business confidence depends on it, the encumbrance of public service necessitates it and the citizens need it in order to inform the requisite patience we will need from them.
President Zuma could have been that leader. He could have dealt with land reform and delivered on the promise to phakisa (accelerate) the economy and create jobs. He could have made a break from his own blotted past and used the power of the presidency to serve the people.
He did not.
We want a leader who will.