Zuma’s tattered legacy: A mistake we should not repeat

President Jacob Zuma did not turn out to be the man of the people he sold himself as when he replaced Thabo Mbeki. That is why we need to thoroughly interrogate all of those vying to succeed him, to avoid making the same error, writes YONELA DIKO

As we head towards the ANC National Elective conference in December, there is a relative acknowledgement that the ANC is at its weakest point since its founding, owing largely to our choice of leadership in 2007. It can therefore only be wise for us to do a thorough assessment of where we went wrong and ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes.

According to Mark Gevisser, Author of Thabo Mbeki’s biography, The Dream Differed; at some point after the exiles had settled home, Mbeki approached his close friend at the time, the Afrikaner intellectual Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, to ask him what he thought Mbeki and other ANC leaders could do to be an effective government, given the monumental task of governing that lay ahead and given the size of the state.

The question must have been out of respect for Van Zyl-Slabbert’s intellect and, of course, his experience, having been part of the previous Parliament. Without thinking much about the question and with a little innocence, Van Zyl-Slabbert advised Mbeki to hire advisers and experts in different fields to make the transition into governing a little easier.

It is said that Mbeki was so upset by that response he and Van Zyl-Slabbert would not talk for years after that and that would mark an abrupt end to a relationship that had started when Van Zyl-Slabbert led a team of Afrikaners to meet a Mbeki led ANC team in Dakar, Senegal in 1987.

The reason is said to be that Mbeki’s interpretation of that Van Zyl-Slabbert’s answer was that the latter did not see Mbeki and team capable of governing on their own. Ideally, Van Zyl-Slabbert, who in fact spoke highly of Mbeki’s intelligence, was supposed to reaffirm this and tell Mbeki that he and his team would do just fine in government. By the time he realised his error and wanted to correct it, it was too late. Mbeki was unreachable to him.

This version of events may not be true and veteran journalist Max Du Preez may well have a different view to Gevisser as a close friend to Van Zyl-Slabbert.

What is true is that by the time Mbeki took over as President, his singular mission seemed to be an obsession to prove just how capable black people were in governing. Despite his earlier misguided obsession with HIV/AIDS, Mbeki did prove that black people were fit to govern and more. Mbeki got the respect of all intellectuals, black and white, and he got respect from all upper echelons of the country and the world. His anger when the media sought to dismantle his image, or corporate South Africa spoke of imagined political instability, spoke of a President who would not allow black leadership to be undermined without cause.

In Mbeki’s obsession with proving himself to the country and the world elite, he forgot ordinary people. I remember listening to Mbeki speaking in the rural town of Tsolo (Eastern Cape), where his speech had an almost Shakespearean language, speaking of three scores and ten, instead of just saying 70. I remember asking myself, but who is Mbeki talking to. I concluded then that Mbeki, in all his speeches, all his engagements had this particular audience he was hell-bent on proving himself to; almost the mosaic of his Presidency. Mbeki was speaking to the cameras and not the people of Tsolo.

It is this image of an elitist President that saw ordinary people like Jacob Zuma, warm their way with simple language, unburdened by elitist education and tastes, comfortable in crowds and rallies that saw Mbeki being usurped, and he could not understand it. Mbeki was brilliant, had a great track record as a leader, and had improved the image of ANC and the Presidency; how could people reject him?

In 2007, the people were almost saying, but you rejected us first.

At the elective conference that year, Zuma took over the ANC. By 2008, when Mbeki spoke through the microphone about the evil events of xenophobia, of Africans being attacked and burnt, Zuma was on the ground in Alexander and the point was proven. Zuma was the man of the people and Mbeki was not.

Zuma, however, was given this “man of the people” mantle without ever interrogating his vision. Did he really see himself as the man of the people or had he simply fell into a vacuum that was there? Did Zuma have a complete and comprehensive programme which carried the “man of the people” mantle or had he simply been surviving?

Last year November, Kenyans took to Twitter to celebrate Rwandan President Paul Kagame who personally drove King Mohammed VI of Morocco to the airport in his luxury Range Rover SUV to send him off after an official visit. Kenyans asked their President Jomo Kenyatta to drive his then guest, Tanzanian President John Magufuli to the airport. This was part of the fascination that the Rwandans and other African nations have about Kagame’s ability to move up and down the social spectrum with such ease and comfort. Kagame loves cars, he drives himself and stops anytime he sees something to be fixed around town.

His monthly campaigns that see him getting into overalls with the rest of the country to clean up neighbourhoods have made Rwanda one of the cleanest countries in the world. By the time President Magufuli came onto the world stage, aggressively cutting the fat off government and giving the state a lean and mean posture, Kagame had already mastered it.

All these Presidents are about the people. As a South African, I can’t help but be envious of these Presidents. This is the president that Zuma should have been. He had not been expected to replicate the clocking of international miles as Mbeki did and forget about his ordinary posture that had catapulted him to the highest office. The people saw a friend in him, the people saw themselves in him. Unfortunately, Zuma had been suppressed too long in ordinariness with the people, the Presidency became an escape.

President Zuma’s eight years in office have felt like a destruction of a legacy and vandalism of a country on a colossal scale, aided by a cabal around him which has vowed never to voice even the slightest criticism against him. Those who have dared to criticise him have found themselves being stripped and shunned and made to feel like outsiders in bed with an ‘imagined enemy’. To the cabal, highly resourced, extremely reckless, Zuma alone is right and everyone else be damned.

Jacob Zuma didn’t build on the legacy of his predecessors, an economy growing at an average of 3% from 1999 to 2004 and then at above 4.5% from 2004 to 2007. Zuma did not make the aggressive investment in education that would yield great and quality dividends in the future. He did not professionalise the public service so that it becomes the employer of choice for all talented South Africans. No young graduate today is crazy about joining the public service, and although all these were expressed as goals in ANC policy documents, Zumas’ administration didn’t take the opportunity. When Zuma steps down as the President, what legacy will he leave behind?

This December, we are again electing ANC leadership with the hope to correct our mistakes. One gets the feeling that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to bring back the elitism of the Mbeki government, respected by the elites and loved by the world, but removed from the people. Should Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma emerge, she is likely to continue the destruction of a legacy and vandalism of a country by her predecessor.

The biggest mistake we would do then would be not to interrogate these candidates and give them a chance to articulate just what is it that is in their bellies.

Maybe Zamani Saul – the ANC’s Northern Cape chairperson – was right, we do need American style primaries where the whole country can see and hear just what these leaders’ vision is as they get interrogated by seasoned political journalists.

That may well be our hope

Diko is a media strategist and consultant

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