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August18

Has Zuma improved Brand South Africa?

There is no doubt that the arrival of US President Barack Obama at the White House was followed by much renewed goodwill and contributed positively to changing the image of America around the world. His message of hope resonated far beyond the borders of the USA, touching on Africa – where Kenyans and others claimed him as one of their own – Australasia, Europe, The Middle and Far-East, The Pacific and other parts of the world. Given the place occupied by the USA in the affairs of the world, this reach has not been a surprise.

To a lesser extent – given the role of South Africa in African affairs, at least – can the same be said about President Jacob Zuma’s arrival into power earlier this year? What effect has his presidency had on Brand South Africa and on what note do we finish the year 2009? Looking back at the seemingly insurmountable legal woes that he faced before becoming head of state, as well as the relentless media and public onslaught, few would have imagined that he would be where he is today.

The sparkle in Brand South Africa had taken a few knocks and begun to wane in some quarters as a result of former President Mbeki’s stance on a number of key national issues (HIV AIDS Policies and views), regional crisis (Zimbabwe, Swaziland and the Sudan/Darfur), and international, multilateral issues (Myanmar and the UN vote against the use of rape as a weapon in a number of regional conflicts). Some people had even begun to question whether it still made sense to go on holding the much celebrated constitution of post-apartheid South Africa as the beacon of hope that would shine much needed light through Africa and the rest of the world.

President Zuma is a political master-mind of old. Even Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition party and Premier of the only province that is not governed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has admitted as much in an otherwise hard-hitting annual national government performance report card on national government performance. Over the months, we have seen how Zuma would use his dance moves and his infectious laughter and smile to charm his way into crowds who would otherwise have been angry at lack of service delivery or some other development. He has also skilfully alternated highly unpopular decisions with softer, more popular ones. His recent appointment of Advocate Menzi Simelane to the position of National Director of Public Prosecutions was quickly followed by the appointment of Mac Maharash, Lindiwe Zulu and Charles Nqakula to take over from former President Thabo Mbeki in dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis (What crisis?). The latter move somewhat took some pressure away from the Simelane decision, at least in as far as media attention is concerned; all this despite the DA’s refusal to stand down on the matter, proceeding to take it to court in Johannesburg. To me, the Zimbabwe move is just another clever political smokescreen, as it is an attempt to give an impression that a new assertive strategy has been adopted while all the leaders are doing is to buy more time to allow South Africa, as part of SADC and the AU, to try and get targeted sanctions lifted against Mugabe and his kleptocratic cronies and Zimbabwe readmitted into the Common Wealth. Rewarding the recidivist Robert Mugabe before he delivers on his part of the responsibility towards creating stability in Zimbabwe is hardly the right way to go. These latest attempts constitute a clever ploy because they force all close watchers of the situation to be “reasonable” and give more time to the new Zuma team on Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe continues to undermine the MDC and to frustrate all efforts to implement the multi-party agreements in Zimbabwe and Advocate Simelane silently settles into his new position, keeping a profile as low as possible.

Many have criticised President Zuma for trying to be everything to everyone; we have to admit that the man has no choice, given the opinionated and diverse nation that we are. He is, after all, President of all South Africans and has to be seen to be sympathetic to views from as many quarters as possible, even if he will not agree with all of them. This is how former President Mandela managed to make himself loved across all historic fault lines and, ironically, where former President Mbeki seems to have failed, as he got criticised – correctly or incorrectly – for being obsessed with being an African nationalist and Pan-Africanist who saw racism in everything.

Helen Zille was candid enough to acknowledge during several interviews following her party’s release of its report card that it was very hard to judge Jacob Zuma. The man is like a Public Relations moving target that requires highly advanced skills for anyone to pin it down on any one issue for long enough. A Canadian friend said the same thing about America; a quintessential moving target because for every criticism of US foreign policy or action, someone will point out something good that America has done in the world. In the end, all arguments about whether or not America is a bad country become a matter of personal opinion at some level and not a judgment that can be made in a general way. And so it is with Zuma. When asked whether I think Zuma is a good President, I often respond that he is, in a lot of ways, a better President than his predecessor. There are many things that I and many others would like him to do differently, no doubt, but he has thus far managed to dance his way along the tightrope between the many conflicting political poles that surround him within the tri-partite alliance and in South Africa as a whole. He is no longer the evil, corrupt, old-fashioned polygamist that many feared would propel South Africa straight into doom.

At continental level, Brand South Africa will always be, in some way, linked to the performance of Brand Africa. Failure by South Africa to criticise abuse of power elsewhere on the continent – always hiding behind SADC or AU processes – will always put us on the back foot vis-à-vis other powers in the world. While South Africa’s reluctance, indeed refusal, to be seen as “big brother” in Africa is understandable, this country is, in many ways, ahead of most other countries on the continent and will always be expected to play the role of leader and role model. How South Africa reacts to Uganda’s attempt to introduce an archaic law that will ban homosexuality and force other citizens to report anyone known to be a practicing homosexual will also say a lot about South Africa’s own stance on human rights and, by extension, the image of this country. Nelson Mandela was applauded all round when he declared that South Africa’s foreign policy would be underpinned by its pursuit of respect for Human Rights. Now in power, Zuma has an opportunity to start where Mandela left off and thus help position South Africa as a shining light in Africa and among the global community of nations.

While it can be argued that, on the whole, South Africa’s image as a serious player worthy of respect has somewhat improved in the region and around the world since the last elections, much more needs to be done – especially in dealing with the callous abuse of tax payers’ money to fund the lavish lifestyles and materialist appetites of senior politicians – in order to restore our image within our borders.

The road is still long ahead of us, but 2009 ends on a fairly positive note for Brand South Africa!There is no doubt that the arrival of US President Barack Obama at the White House was followed by much renewed goodwill and contributed positively to changing the image of America around the world. His message of hope resonated far beyond the borders of the USA, touching on Africa – where Kenyans and others claimed him as one of their own – Australasia, Europe, The Middle and Far-East, The Pacific and other parts of the world. Given the place occupied by the USA in the affairs of the world, this reach has not been a surprise.

To a lesser extent – given the role of South Africa in African affairs, at least – can the same be said about President Jacob Zuma’s arrival into power earlier this year? What effect has his presidency had on Brand South Africa and on what note do we finish the year 2009? Looking back at the seemingly insurmountable legal woes that he faced before becoming head of state, as well as the relentless media and public onslaught, few would have imagined that he would be where he is today.

The sparkle in Brand South Africa had taken a few knocks and begun to wane in some quarters as a result of former President Mbeki’s stance on a number of key national issues (HIV AIDS Policies and views), regional crisis (Zimbabwe, Swaziland and the Sudan/Darfur), and international, multilateral issues (Myanmar and the UN vote against the use of rape as a weapon in a number of regional conflicts). Some people had even begun to question whether it still made sense to go on holding the much celebrated constitution of post-apartheid South Africa as the beacon of hope that would shine much needed light through Africa and the rest of the world.

President Zuma is a political master-mind of old. Even Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition party and Premier of the only province that is not governed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has admitted as much in an otherwise hard-hitting annual national government performance report card on national government performance. Over the months, we have seen how Zuma would use his dance moves and his infectious laughter and smile to charm his way into crowds who would otherwise have been angry at lack of service delivery or some other development. He has also skilfully alternated highly unpopular decisions with softer, more popular ones. His recent appointment of Advocate Menzi Simelane to the position of National Director of Public Prosecutions was quickly followed by the appointment of Mac Maharash, Lindiwe Zulu and Charles Nqakula to take over from former President Thabo Mbeki in dealing with the Zimbabwean crisis (What crisis?). The latter move somewhat took some pressure away from the Simelane decision, at least in as far as media attention is concerned; all this despite the DA’s refusal to stand down on the matter, proceeding to take it to court in Johannesburg. To me, the Zimbabwe move is just another clever political smokescreen, as it is an attempt to give an impression that a new assertive strategy has been adopted while all the leaders are doing is to buy more time to allow South Africa, as part of SADC and the AU, to try and get targeted sanctions lifted against Mugabe and his kleptocratic cronies and Zimbabwe readmitted into the Common Wealth. Rewarding the recidivist Robert Mugabe before he delivers on his part of the responsibility towards creating stability in Zimbabwe is hardly the right way to go. These latest attempts constitute a clever ploy because they force all close watchers of the situation to be “reasonable” and give more time to the new Zuma team on Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe continues to undermine the MDC and to frustrate all efforts to implement the multi-party agreements in Zimbabwe and Advocate Simelane silently settles into his new position, keeping a profile as low as possible.

Many have criticised President Zuma for trying to be everything to everyone; we have to admit that the man has no choice, given the opinionated and diverse nation that we are. He is, after all, President of all South Africans and has to be seen to be sympathetic to views from as many quarters as possible, even if he will not agree with all of them. This is how former President Mandela managed to make himself loved across all historic fault lines and, ironically, where former President Mbeki seems to have failed, as he got criticised – correctly or incorrectly – for being obsessed with being an African nationalist and Pan-Africanist who saw racism in everything.

Helen Zille was candid enough to acknowledge during several interviews following her party’s release of its report card that it was very hard to judge Jacob Zuma. The man is like a Public Relations moving target that requires highly advanced skills for anyone to pin it down on any one issue for long enough. A Canadian friend said the same thing about America; a quintessential moving target because for every criticism of US foreign policy or action, someone will point out something good that America has done in the world. In the end, all arguments about whether or not America is a bad country become a matter of personal opinion at some level and not a judgment that can be made in a general way. And so it is with Zuma. When asked whether I think Zuma is a good President, I often respond that he is, in a lot of ways, a better President than his predecessor. There are many things that I and many others would like him to do differently, no doubt, but he has thus far managed to dance his way along the tightrope between the many conflicting political poles that surround him within the tri-partite alliance and in South Africa as a whole. He is no longer the evil, corrupt, old-fashioned polygamist that many feared would propel South Africa straight into doom.

At continental level, Brand South Africa will always be, in some way, linked to the performance of Brand Africa. Failure by South Africa to criticise abuse of power elsewhere on the continent – always hiding behind SADC or AU processes – will always put us on the back foot vis-à-vis other powers in the world. While South Africa’s reluctance, indeed refusal, to be seen as “big brother” in Africa is understandable, this country is, in many ways, ahead of most other countries on the continent and will always be expected to play the role of leader and role model. How South Africa reacts to Uganda’s attempt to introduce an archaic law that will ban homosexuality and force other citizens to report anyone known to be a practicing homosexual will also say a lot about South Africa’s own stance on human rights and, by extension, the image of this country. Nelson Mandela was applauded all round when he declared that South Africa’s foreign policy would be underpinned by its pursuit of respect for Human Rights. Now in power, Zuma has an opportunity to start where Mandela left off and thus help position South Africa as a shining light in Africa and among the global community of nations.

While it can be argued that, on the whole, South Africa’s image as a serious player worthy of respect has somewhat improved in the region and around the world since the last elections, much more needs to be done – especially in dealing with the callous abuse of tax payers’ money to fund the lavish lifestyles and materialist appetites of senior politicians – in order to restore our image within our borders.

The road is still long ahead of us, but 2009 ends on a fairly positive note for Brand South Africa!

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