Leader or puppet?

2008-03-14 00:00

While engaging with various sectors of society since his election as African National Congress president last December, Jacob Zuma has been doing what comes naturally to most politicians — adapting his message to the audience. In fact, as aspirant state president it is vital that he interacts with South Africans of all walks of life, listening and responding to their concerns.

Some have accused Zuma of behaving like a chameleon. However, it is his party, assuming its leader is a simple megaphone for approved policy that requires criticism. To confuse matters further, it remains unclear whether the Polokwane conference was primarily a matter of anointing Zuma as ANC president, a takeover by the hard left or, more probably, both.

Statements by Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, a minor movement enjoying a remarkable degree of media coverage without the bother of offering itself to the voters, suggest there is substance to the Trojan Horse theory. This pictures Zuma as the populist vehicle for a leftward shift in government policy. Serious discussion about the nationalisation of strategic assets indicates the theory might indeed be true.

Is Zuma his own man, capable of leading and representing the entire nation? Or will he be a puppet, simply obeying party orthodoxy dictated by the hardliners at Luthuli House? More importantly, does he understand the overriding authority of the Constitution sufficiently well to guard and promote its fundamental values?

South Africa faces many severe challenges that must now be tackled against a background of political uncertainty. There are enough possibilities to create considerable apprehension. While Zuma’s personal suitability for presidential office is still a crucial question, one that may yet be answered by the courts, broader tendencies within his party are just as crucial.

As a columnist in this paper recently pointed out, there are already distinct signs that the new-look ANC is further undermining the role of an indifferent Parliament that generally acts as a rubber stamp. Political battle lines, far more important than the behaviour of any single politician, are being drawn. Who will be joining the judiciary and media in defence of South Africa’s hard-won Constitution?

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