Jacob Zuma misunderstood?

OPINION – South African President Zuma is often misunderstood and at times deliberately misrepresented by opinion makers in the media.

President Zuma is often misunderstood and at times deliberately misrepresented by opinion makers in the media. Behind their seeming misunderstanding of the president is an attempt to put him at loggerheads with the Alliance, particularly COSATU and the SACP. Unfortunately, they sugarcoat their articles and present assertions as facts – whereas in most cases these articles are deduced from what they observe at a distance vis-à-vis the knowledge that those in the ANC have of him.

Too often these commentators are driven by hatred of the man who beat the media plus his detractors to became president, despite a nine year campaign to tarnish his name and image.

What Mr Zuma represents, for me, is a voice of reason; a good listener; a negotiator; a father figure; a statesman and a man of the people who is good in leadership. He may be accommodative but he certainly can’t be accused of indecisiveness as Mr Denis Worrall (Chairman of Omega Investment International) does. Zuma is decisive alright, the difference is that sometimes the elite doesn’t like the decisions that he takes as these seem to favour the collective or the masses as it were. This approach is in contrast to the unilateral decision making the business elite are used to in the corporate environment.

Mr Patrick Laurence accuses Mr Zuma of being conservative (see article) and again I suspect that Mr Laurence confuses president Zuma’s being in touch with his culture and being proud of it, or practicing it both religiously and unapologetically, for conservatism.

Mr Laurence cites Mr Legassick to corroborate his opinion by quoting what Zuma said on economic policy debate in 2006. This statement is hardly a measure of conservatism but rather it is one that tells us more about Zuma’s discipline as a committed cadre of the movement. For me though Zuma is a smart politician who understands that you can’t be forceful or rock the boat when you want change, least of all economic changes, because there are market factors to take into account.

He knows only too well that an authoritarian approach whereby a leader instills fear to get his way is neither workable nor sustainable. President Zuma is a consensus man, someone who prefers to engage, brainstorm and convince his audience rather than push through his views irrespective of what the collective feels and thinks. What proved to be an undoing for former president Mbeki is that he took unilateral decisions which were not canvassed with the ANC’s NEC. In the end he paid a heavy price for his non consultative and authoritarian leadership style. On economic policy Mbeki made decisions which weren’t adopted at any policy conference of the ANC. GEAR, ASGISA and others were IMF & World Bank inspired policies and shoved down government’s throat. Even the RDP was sent to these Brent Woods institutions before finalisation in order to seek acceptance from them. Zuma realises the dangers of overlooking the opinions of the membership and/or the electorate (his most important constituency).

It seems that Mbeki was too eager to appease the international community and so forgot about the opinions of his party – the one that the people voted for. Zuma is smart enough not to repeat the same unwitting mistakes committed by his predecessor. I will admit that I too don’t know Mr Zuma, but if I were in his shoes and realized that the business community was trying to twist my arm into maintaining the status quo, thus ensuring I ended up neglecting the poor, I would rather let them be and do what my party wants.

Subverting or disrespecting his party would only serve the oppositions’ bigger agenda of ultimately projecting the ANC as having failed in their mandate. He probably fully appreciates that fact and is all too aware that economic change should be gradual and if you effect such change one should not be rigid, otherwise the business or international community can sabotage him as has happened in the rest of Africa.

Again Zuma doesn’t strike me as someone who will succumb to pressure from labour or the communists but he will maintain a healthy balance between the divergent views which each sector puts across to him. That each sector forcefully presents their positions to him doesn’t mean that he must swing like a pendulum. Importantly he won’t do so because he is his own man. He is self made and very few people can claim to have made Zuma what he is today although as a human he would have been shaped by events, situations and former leaders along the way.

Laurence is at pains to paint a picture of Zuma, COSATU and the SACP being an association of the wounded. What Laurence doesn’t know however is that Zuma has always attended the congresses of both COSATU and the SACP. Their association didn’t start in 2005 after he was relieved of duty by Mbeki. Of course, the disappointment of Laurence and Worrall’s and others of their ilk stems from the fact that they had hoped that Zuma would be a stooge and dance to business’ guitar as did Mandela and Mbeki. Laurence quotes Brian Pottinger but forgets that there are numerous examples of leaders on the continent where the liberation movements were sabotaged by business because of their pro poor stance.

The same could happen to the ANC here if Zuma doesn’t manage the transition properly. Mr Zuma, I am sure, has learnt from such cases. He knows that he should not make emotional statements to impress a particular grouping (not labour, nor the poor, nor the elite, nor communists) but he must instead think through his utterances.

In need, he must rally the support of the Alliance and his NEC comrades where it is necessary i.e. on decisions which affect the general populace. Therefore, rather than being a dictator or authoritarian as Peter Bruce once suggested, he exhausts all opinions before reaching a conclusion. The ANC has been crying out for such a leader and in Zuma we have someone who listens to both sides and genuinely takes interest in resolving the problem amicably. The interesting part is that Mr Worrall presents Peter Bruce as a reasonable man yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Mr Bruce is very biased and his newspaper censors any or all opinion which differs from his stance. I know so from my own personal experience. Most of the articles I submitted to Business Day were never published because I challenged them on their character assassination and slandering of Zuma.

By the way, Peter Bruce, for those whose memories are failing them, is the self same editor who hid judge Hilary Squires’ article and correspondence for 8 months wherein the retired judge sought to correct the unfortunate and false statement – "generally corrupt relationship" – which was attributed to him by newspapers in the Shaik trial. Interestingly, even the SCA went on to commit the same mistake whereas it was in fact the state in their closing arguments which made that wild statement. Peter Bruce is therefore far from objective when it comes to president Zuma and there are numerous newspaper clippings to prove my point.

The response is however not so much about exposing Bruce’s prejudice but rather about Zuma the leader who tolerates dissent. It is not a sign of cowardice, as suggested by Worrall, for Zuma to seek to assure business whilst at the same time telling them that he doesn’t have his own policies and saying that he will implement ANC policies.

After all is said and done, the electorate voted for the ANC and not the individuals who are deployed in government by the ANC. It follows therefore that president Zuma doesn’t have to tell us about his own policies because he respects the ruling party and is bound by what the party resolves at policy conferences. This for me is smart because by so doing, this way he will be shielded from unwarranted criticism in case of failures by sabotage.

It is also paves the way to push through the much needed reforms which favour the poor and simply point back to the ANC as the author of those policies. Above all, Mr Zuma understands power and he is not casual about it. Consequently he doesn’t need or have to impress the media or analysts by publicly condemning the Alliance comrades who stood by him in the face of adversity when his political obituary had been written.

President Zuma doesn’t have an inferiority complex and/or any low esteem issues therefore he won’t try to impress anyone in order to gain acceptance. After all he got to where he is through mainly his own efforts. Despite the support from the public, ANC membership, COSATU and the SACP he could have crumbled under pressure and relented but he didn’t. Why would Zuma want to alienate himself from his constituency (i.e. the masses, COSATU and the SACP) by making ill considered and rash statements?

Some have decried Trevor Manuel’s clipping of wings but is he really as popular in the Alliance (which includes the ANC) as some would like to believe? The only reason, in my assessment, that Manuel has often featured highly in the ANC lists is because the leadership has often lobbied for his inclusion (in the interest of the markets I suppose). As a member who was present in Polokwane I can say this with conviction that even the fact that Manuel is in the NEC today, it is because of the leadership’s intervention. They felt that there must be continuity and of course, much as he is not my favourite politician, he does have skills. Another possible factor is that as a then sitting Finance Minister I guess it was important to have him around so that he would answer first hand in the NEC meetings when the economic changes didn’t get implemented according to plan.

Importantly, Zuma, seems to favour a mixed economy and his government will surely forge this system to become a developmental state. An economy which leans towards socialism shouldn’t give him sleepless nights because it balances out between the communists and the capitalists. In my view, this system will not necessarily marginalise the capitalists under his tutelage nor will it make the communists overbearing.

The Zuma administration should in my view press ahead with pro poor policies unapologetically and attempt to correct the slant towards business which we saw under both Mandela and Mbeki. I think that president Zuma means it when he says to the masses, "Ngiyanithanda futhi ngiyofa lapho eniyofa khona".

Notably, Zuma has said that he will put emphasis on the implementation of our (i.e. ANC) existing policies. The ANC has had progressive policies but Mbeki chose to discard those and dictate his own terms. Simply translated, this means that he will bring back all the workable policies which were overlooked by Mbeki. There are also many policies which were implemented by Mbeki’s government which weren’t discussed by the ANC. By this I mean that he will revert to those policies which have been a carryover from various conferences whilst changing those which were crafted by individuals and had not been discussed or adopted by the ANC.

For me, the departure of Joel Netshitenzhe signals just that, and the exclusion of Manuel from the economic cluster is yet another indicator.

Zuma doesn’t owe business anything because it wasn’t they who put him where he is. He would rather owe allegiance to the ANC and the masses that put him where he is today, despite his rejection by business and media. It is worth noting that business and the International community only started embracing Zuma when they saw that there was no other option and that he was destined for the union buildings.

President Zuma is the last person who can be accused of not having a backbone as suggested by Worrall though. Laurence on the other hand cites Josiah Gumede who was outvoted at conference for adopting a pro communist line. He however conveniently forgets two stalwarts – namely Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo – who spent most of their time in the company of communists and collectively ruled for 44 years yet no such outvoting ever happened at conferences.

Chief Luthuli led for 15 years (from 1952 until his death in 1967) with Moses Kotane as Treasurer-General who also doubled as a CEC leader of the CPSA. Chief Luthuli consulted Kotane a lot and he would rarely make decisions without deferring to him first. OR Tambo on the other hand went on to lead for 29 years and as Prof Vladimir Shubin who spent 30 years with the ANC in exile will attest, Tambo spent most of his time surrounded by communists. He often sought and received assistance from the Soviets but he too was never outvoted. Of course if you are a businessman or woman who would have preferred president Zuma to sell his soul to them, perhaps you can say that communism is a failed ideology. Zuma has never sold out in the ANC and I don’t think that he is about to sell out just because he is now both the ANC and state president.

The irony of it all is that capitalism is equally a failed ideology and hence most powerful nations in the World have ditched it and become socialist. In this example I can cite two super powers like the US and Britain. Most Scandinavian countries are thriving successfully with socialist economies, therefore Mr Laurence and Mr Worrall are not being altogether honest in their analysis.

On the contrary, President Zuma knows where his bread is buttered and that it is the poor who propelled him into office against all odds. But of course he doesn’t owe anyone of them any favours either, hence he will do what is right for the country. Judging from the election manifesto, particularly the 5 line items which are to be prioritised by the ANC-led government, it is clear that Zuma means business or that he is pro poor.

As alluded to above President Zuma fully appreciates the fact that he can’t ruffle feathers because we live in a beggar continent where we are fully dependent on businesses for survival despite the huge infrastructural spending by government. The reality however is that government can’t use this leverage to bargain for a fair deal for everyone, especially the poor. I think that he appreciates that fact and that it is important to keep the international community happy whilst at the same sneak reforms through from right under their noses. One policy which we are likely to see revisited in my assessment is the RDP and I think that he might bring it back in one form or the other. The RDP was one such policy which would have changed the lives of many Black people or brought a better life for all a step closer for many.

President Zuma is indeed a party man and there is no harm in his resolve that the ANC comes first, after all it is the ruling party and the electorate voted for it. I thus think that he will implement mostly what we members resolved in Polokwane and intertwine that with what serves the national agenda.

Of course he has his own ideas which as state president he should have latitude to bring to the fore and already we have heard his views in international conferences. For me, the starting point was not to have Trevor Manuel as head of finance because the man was rigid and he believes in hardcore capitalism.

It wasn’t a surprise therefore that someone else (Pravin Gordham) took over the reigns from him and equally, he won’t allow himself to be bulldozed by the left. He may lean more and more towards them but that is not to say that they will control government’s agenda. At the end of the day, Zuma wants to do what is right for the country and not necessarily what the rich and educated individuals want.

The statement "what is right for the country" is often read by the elite and capitalists to mean that he must do what serves their interests, agendas and egos at the exclusion of labour, communists and the poor. But what is right for our country right now is that government must reverse the economic marginalisation of Black people because it is not sustainable in the long term. There is a real risk of revolution if the gap between the have-mores and the have-nots is not closed quickly enough or widens further. Zuma realises that this is the last chance for the ANC to have a meaningful impact, effect lasting economic change and improve the general populace’s lives.

I think he equally appreciates the fact that should the situation not change, we risk a revolt by the poor which would wipe out the gains we have made as a young democracy. It is important to bring some history in here. During the negotiations the ANC made too many assurances to Whites and that is what is haunting the ANC. The ANC compromised too much to the extent that Whites ended up not giving up anything that they didn’t already have. In the past 15 years Whites have increased their wealth 7 fold under the ANC government whilst the opposite has happened to Black people’s lives except for the few bourgeoisies that were created.

On Zimbabwe, Worrall took issue with Zuma but that is a sovereign state. Zuma can’t be said to have failed anyone there because it is the people of Zimbabwe who must stand up against the human rights abuses by Robert Mugabe and liberate themselves. The Zimbabweans should revolt against Mugabe’s tyrannical rule but they can’t cower and allow themselves to be ruled by that dictator and then expect South Africa to take the blame. 

On strikes, there is no failure to take decisive action by the Zuma led government and a case in point is the recall of the mayor of Sakhile along with her mayoral committee. But of course people like Worrall want the ANC to use the apartheid era tactics to instill fear and in the process put the ANC at war with its constituency. On complex matters, it is evident that Worrall hasn’t been following Zuma in various international conferences where he has discussed such complex subjects. Worrall and Laurence need to learn to give credit where it is due but there is no harm in constructive criticism.

In closing, a second term for Zuma is necessary in order to preserve the unity and cohesion of the ANC and the country which have been bleeding for too long. And not only that, but Zuma’s skills as a unifier and prowess in bringing warring parties together are desperately needed in this country after an authoritarian ruler we recently had recalled. We need a president who listens to stay on longer than a mere 5 year term. Above all, we need a president who doesn’t bow to pressure of business’ egotistical demands.