Zuma – more Putin than Obama

Johannesburg – Douglas Mabunda, a loyal dedicated member of the ANC in good standing, says to me: “You political analysts, the media, and the opposition, are so obsessed with President Jacob Zuma – the ANC is bigger than Zuma.”

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Mabunda puts it to me that there are many issues engulfing society that are deserving of attention rather than the endless hammering of Zuma. In fact, it is very common in the ANC circles to hear of a “broader hatred” against President Zuma.

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This has even permeated Parliament.

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Some ANC MPs have begun to advance this defence of Zuma as a victim of insatiable hatred.

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Obviously, I have no mandate to speak on behalf of others. However, if indeed, there are Zuma critics motivated by hatred of the president, that’s wrong. Addressing national issues on the basis of hatred for Zuma robs the nation, and Zuma himself, of genuine engagement. What’s meant as a genuine criticism of Zuma’s leadership, could become propaganda against him.

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I do not think there is an obsession with Zuma. There is, though, a critical focus on him that comes with his position. Our polarised socio-economic conditions with poverty being mainly among blacks, riches among whites, positions expectations of his leadership role at two extremes.

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For the poor black majority, Zuma carries the role and personification of the saviour, the messiah. The rich white society expects him to protect white privilege and expand white wealth.

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Therefore, both the poor and the rich will focus on Zuma but for contradictory reasons. The difference, though, is that the middle and upper classes have direct access to means of disseminating information.

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They dominate the spaces of public opinion. As a result, this upper-class criticism of Zuma’s leadership dominates and subtly begins to sound to be correct.

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The generic leadership narrative navigates in favour of those who lead from the front. This is where most misunderstand Zuma’s leadership approach: He leads from behind the scenes.

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This is different to the leadership approaches adopted by his predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. They led from the front. This was commensurate with how they rose within the ANC.

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Mandela was a lawyer. Such a profession orientated him to logically develop arguments, ascertain facts and thereafter, argue his case. In his training, he was capacitated to stand up front, and seek to convince his audience towards a certain position to earn a favourable decision. Therefore, he grew in stature within the organisation as charismatic and a great orator. As such, his rise within the ANC positioned him to lead from the front.

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While in prison, the ANC generated the Release Mandela Campaign throughout the world. As such, upon his release, the movement positioned him in front to face the nation and the world.

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Mbeki’s growth within the ANC positioned him to work closely with stalwart Oliver Tambo. Part of his responsibility had been to convince the world that the ANC was not a terrorist organisation, but a genuine liberation movement fighting for human rights.

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Moreover, he had to help convince the world to apply sanctions against the apartheid regime. These duties therefore threw him too to the front of the organisation, preparing him to lead from the front. So, he was raised by the ANC to engage with various constituencies and seek to win them over.

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Hence, as president, he would through his “Letter from the President” on the “ANC Today” deal with institutions and personnel he considered adversaries. This was a reflection of how he rose through the organisation.

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Zuma worked closely with Mbeki on several military projects in Mozambique, Zambia and Swaziland. However, while Mbeki had at some point assumed diplomatic roles within the ANC, Zuma remained an underground military intelligence man.

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This culminated in his being appointed the chief of intelligence of the ANC based in Lusaka. He remained central to military underground operations.

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Even when negotiations started, he remained key to working behind the scenes.

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These included projects that sought to get the military strongman Constand Viljoen, who advocated for a Volkstaat, to abandon the idea and join the elections.

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Thereafter, he was equally central to working behind the scenes for peace in KwaZulu-Natal, which was ravaged by political violence between the ANC and IFP.

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Essentially, Zuma’s rise within the ANC has always been in very sensitive military intelligence underground operations. It has not positioned him to lead from the front, but to lead from behind the scenes. He is not a front line leader, but the mastermind.

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This is where, Mabunda, the misunderstanding of Zuma’s leadership approach by most of his leadership critics lies: They have a leadership template Zuma is expected to fit into and doesn’t. I refer to this template as the “podium leadership style”. This is Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s style of leadership – standing ahead of a flock that follows.

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Zuma operates in the front row through others. Thus, when it comes to the government’s strategic engagement with the public, Minister Jeff Radebe assumes the front- row role; in dealing with problematic state-owned enterprises and government relations with Parliament, there is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa; Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande plays the intellectual front-row role in dealing with criticism from the opposition; and Speaker Baleka Mbete was supposed to ensure the ANC triumphed in Parliament.

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This is just one of the many approaches to leadership. It is not one of the commonly advanced approaches to leadership in the ever-increasing number of leadership schools.

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However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, as long as Zuma delivers on his constitutional mandate.

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The one way to determine this, as Mabunda would argue, is to go beyond the individual Zuma and look at the performance of his cabinet and the government.

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If there is over-concentration on Zuma the individual to the disregard of his government’s performance, perhaps Mabunda is right, there is an obsession with Zuma. However, if Zuma does not lead the government well to fulfil his mandate, which in his position he must do, then criticism of him may be valid.

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In this regard, most have erroneously looked for Zuma in the US’s Barack Obama, when in essence, they should look for him in Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

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* Dumisani Hlophe is a political analyst with the Kunjalo Centre for Development Research. Twitter: @KunjaloD