JZ — a view from Jozi

2009-02-16 00:00

A recent Weekender debate tried to answer the question: can South Africa produce its own Barack Obama? (The newspaper is boosting its circulation by hosting a series of shamelessly elitist panel debates on matters of public concern, in co-operation with the University of the Witswaterand and the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Everyone who attends gets a free debate and a free newspaper.)

The fair-minded Professor Adam Habib chaired the debate which filled the ample theatre of the arts department at UJ. These are clearly occasions at which speakers feel that they can sparkle a bit since the audience is drawn mostly from past and present denizens of the groves of academe. Someone like Tony Leon can dazzle the denizens with his fluency and can seduce with his wit.

Although Habib declared that Obama was “a metaphor”, the debate soon zoomed in, thanks to Afropolitan magazine’s Tiisetso Makube, on the less metaphorical question of whether the mention of Obama just meant that certain South Africans did not want Jacob Zuma. Clearly some of the panel and many of the audience did not. Political analyst Prince Mashele asked us to imagine a conversation at a Group of Eight meeting between Zuma and Obama on the science of global warming. Hearty laughter.

In contrast to Zuma, observed Thabo Mbeki’s biographer Mark Gevisser, Obama “inspires hope across all boundaries”. Gevisser would, he said in an alliterative, lapidary phrase, much prefer to be “inspired by Obama’s righteous rhetoric rather than by uMshini Wami”. He quoted Salman Rushdie on the value of “hybridisation” in societies. Obama, with his exotic and mixed background, represents these values, whereas in South Africa, where they should be cherished, these values are confronted by “nativism”.

Leon, who claimed to like Zuma, put the two men on different planets. Obama is an intellectual member of the elite. Despite this he won an election in a society in which anti-intellectualism and suspicion of elitism abound. In terms of their relative speaking abilities, Leon remarked that he had listened to many speeches by Zuma and confessed that he couldn’t remember a single thing he said, whereas he could recite, from memory, whole passages of the sublime rhetoric of Obama’s inauguration address.

Rowing bravely against the strong anti-Zuma current in the hall, Habib asked us to consider the possibility that Zuma is South Africa’s Obama, or at least an Obama for many South Africans, although opposed by “urban chauvinism”. One pro-Zuma member of the audience put it thus: “Zuma is our Obama.” Even Gevisser acknowledged that Polokwane was a kind of South African Obama moment, when people turned away from a distant and discredited leader to a new and popular hope.

The feminist point of view was put wryly by the journalist Ferial Hafferjee’s comment that we “need a woman president with only one husband”. On the question of South African leadership, she said: “We haven’t stopped producing leaders; we’ve stopped producing political leaders.” For her, the problem of political leadership is the ANC itself, an organisation which has become “ossified and fat around the jowls”. Its system of political deployment and the policy of choosing old men have resulted in this failure to produce good leaders. According to Makube it has simply become too difficult for the ordinary person to rise in the ranks of a political party and parties have to change to encourage good leadership.

The question of system failure exercised the panel’s minds greatly. The underlying question was how an advanced political system such as ours could produce a president under a cloud of corruption charges. Could or should the system be changed? It was acknowledged that if we had a directly elected president, Zuma would still romp home as the popular choice. Habib put in a word for the virtues of a collective leadership which can keep a check on the president.

Even if a directly elected president wouldn’t be a good idea, what of an element of directly elected representation so that people could at least call local leadership to account? There seemed to be some support for this, but no one mentioned the fact that in an all-constituency system the ANC would completely annihilate the opposition parties. Somehow there didn’t seem to be much hope for the production of a South African Obama by changing the system. However, we could take some crumbs of comfort in Gevisser’s observation that, in fact, Obama was originally inspired by South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. But this means that although we helped to produce him, we don’t seem to be able to produce anyone like him, at least not in the contemporary ANC’s ranks while the party continues to use the system to hold on to power.

There were, thought Habib, some lessons to be learnt from the Zuma phenomenon. Habib suggested that although we have done well as a society to avoid a civil war, perhaps the post-apartheid need for reconciliation and the push for business-led economic growth have blinded us to the urgent needs of the poor. Zuma’s popularity vividly underlines the fact that those needs and aspirations are still far from fulfilled. This seemed a sobering thought for the well-meaning but well-heeled audience.

Zuma also demonstrates, said Habib, that although a poor person can rise right to the top (à la the American dream exemplified by Obama), no South African leader since Nelson Mandela has been able to transcend race and class in the way that Obama has done.

That’s the the view from academic Johannesburg. The raw reality rolls on in KwaZulu-Natal.

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