I HAVE to admit that I find it quite impressive that President Jacob Zuma can keep going around the countrywithout batting an eyelid, addressing seemingly gullible people about the virtues of former president Nelson Mandela and the need to emulate the examples he set, the fight against corruption, as well as on other leadership values we all wish he, Zuma, possessed.
He then merrily hops onto a jet to foreign destinations, meeting world leaders as if nothing is wrong in the country he left behind.
He might have already been banned from addressing gatherings of the ANC’s tripartite partners Cosatu and the South African Communist Party – an unprecedented set of circumstances in the history of this long-standing political partnership – but the man remains unstoppable.
He still has his crowds of often young, impressionable audiences who seem to be easily moved by the sound of his voice and, ostensibly, the sheer knowledge of being in the same room with someone carrying the title of president, even though this title has long ceased to fit the man.
I find it hard to avoid imagining what would be going on in the minds of the world leaders he meets as they shake his hand while looking him in the eyes, pretending not to know anything.
Do they watch him closely, expecting him to blink, to betray any sign of shame? Do any of them silently laugh at him, or at us as a country? Do they feel sorry for him, for us? Do they get tempted to ask him, far from open microphones and running cameras, how he does it? How would he respond to such a question?
And Zuma, what goes on in his own mind as he shakes their hands? Does he to look into their eyes without batting an eyelid, trying to find any sign that they might be seeing through him, thinking what he’s thinking; that they might sense his deep-seated fears? Does he in fact harbour any deep-seated fears or doubts?
Does he wonder if their smiles are fake or, for those whose handshake is mild and too brief, if they’re just doing it for the cameras, mindful of media audiences back home? Does he wonder if they’d have been briefed about the latest email leaks, damning investigative media finds and coverage concerning him and his bunch of rent-seekers?
Or is he convinced that each of these leaders has his or her own domestic issues to worry about; that they too use these international summits as a way to escape their own demons back home, like US President Donald Trump?
What about the African leaders he travels around the continent meeting in expensive, endless and fruitless summits; what do they think of Jacob Zuma, of us? Do they, like increasing numbers of their citizens here and elsewhere on the continent, look at him and feel ashamed of the mess he’s made of Mandela’s legacy?
Or do they silently welcome him to the club of African despots, happy that the South African exceptionalism many used to talk about was after all just a pipe dream, thanks to Zuma?
Do the likes of Robert Mugabe, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo feel happy that, thanks to Zuma, South Africa is nicely integrating into their ranks and blending into the caricature of Africa as known around the world?
Are they satisfied that no one will be pointing them to South Africa as an African democracy to emulate?
And Zuma, what does he see when he looks in the mirror every morning, assuming that he does? What goes on in his mind when he accepts an invitation to give a lecture on Nelson Mandela and the legacy he left behind, knowing that he has become the very nightmare Mandela would have never wished to befall the country he and others gave so much for?
What goes on in Zuma’s mind when, fresh from an ANC policy conference, he deliberately goes off to make pronouncements that go against his own party’s resolutions, all without blinking? What goes on in his mind when he – the one citizen entrusted with the historic responsibility to hold our still fragile nation together – does everything to tear it asunder again through careless pronouncements?
Does he do this with the misplaced assurance that to his blind or misinformed followers he will remain an untouchable makhulu baas forever; that his meek party followers and the ineffective ANC national executive committee members will simply shrug their shoulders, say eish mara u-baba and move on, pretending to still be in control when we all know they’re not?
A tale of two brands
All these questions are important because Zuma the president – accident of political history or not – also happens to lead, for lack of a better word, two important brands.
The first one, Brand South Africa, matters to all of us because its value and global attractiveness impact on our ability as a country to attract the best investments, global skills, lucrative research project collaboration, discerning tourists, MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and other events), etc – all of which have the potential to help us build the much-touted inclusive economy and, by extension, to impact positively on the socio–economic well-being of all South Africans.
The second brand, the ANC, remains important in the hearts and minds of many fellow South Africans because they’re still emotionally invested in it – despite it already being reputationally on its knees – and, if Zuma is left to continue eroding what is left of its historic value, it will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. But this is probably what must come to pass for South Africa to be saved.
No one should underestimate the debilitating impact of Zuma on our collective fortunes – national or sectoral – and the gains we have made since the end of apartheid – gains whose value many seem to underestimate.
It’s just a matter of time before the ongoing leadership nightmare comes to an end. When it does, we would be foolish gluttons for punishment if we fail to insist on fundamental changes to the way we elect and dismiss presidents of our country, and to the powers given to such presidents.