Guest Column

Is JZ an amoral president?

2017-04-16 06:03
President Jacob Zuma during a reply on the budget debate in the National Assembly. The writer believes Zuma is too morally bankrupt to be president of the country Picture: Leanne Stander

President Jacob Zuma during a reply on the budget debate in the National Assembly. The writer believes Zuma is too morally bankrupt to be president of the country Picture: Leanne Stander

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Alain Tschudin

Before we can talk radical economic transformation, President Zuma must look within himself and examine if he is morally fit to lead this country.

On March 15, Good Governance Africa launched its Voter Sentiment Survey on why South Africans voted the way they did in the 2016 municipal elections.

By abstaining or voting for other parties, tolerant citizens finally seemed to fire a shot across the bow of the ship of state capture.

I referred to Shakespeare’s celebrated soothsayer’s “Beware the Ides of March” lines in Julius Caesar – “the Ides of March are come. Aye Caesar, but not gone” – to caution leaders to remedy bad governance. Some thought that this was facetious. After all, what do the classics have to do with contemporary life?

What we do know is that the frustration of the Senate and the people of Rome was sufficiently fuelled to turn their knives on a leader who, once revered, had become a tyrant. This encounter marked a key transition for Rome, the undeniable world superpower, from republic to empire. It was not a trivial event, for it had seismic geopolitical, social and economic ramifications that ripped through the society of the times.

History repeats itself, so the saying goes. Fast forward to South Africa, circa 2 000 years later. Not quite a global superpower, the country remains a regional and a continental powerhouse. It is therefore significant that the democratically elected president has chosen a somewhat “unpresidential” path to follow. Rather than the Senate turning their knives on Caesar, Caesar appears to have turned his on the Senate.

Focused reflection might help us to navigate the waters ahead. Accordingly, the broader argument surrounding the current crisis has been limited to just one consideration: presidential morality. What if, instead of counting good and bad apples, we undertook some analysis of a single individual, namely the president of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma?


Some say that this is the story of a good man gone bad, others that power corrupts, and yet others say that much more sinister forces are at play. Friedrich Nietzsche, the controversial 19th century German writer, referred to the “eternal recurrence of the same”. Drawing on classical philology, he gave some credence to the notion that history does indeed repeat itself.

With his Will to Power, Nietzsche provided a caricature of the “superman”, that specimen of the master race who would activate and self-affirm at all costs. The traditional moral categories would no longer do. The words uttered by his prophet Zarathustra, “God is dead”, signal a move beyond good and evil, past the moral and the immoral, to the amoral, a realm in which moral reasoning and virtue are obsolete.

Don’t look for the neat black curl or the red cape and spandex, this superman is rather more ruthless. He will crush the weak and smite those who get in the way of his interests and those of his group. The rest of us are slaves, forced to yield to this devastating, barrel-bombing power. Any expectation of moral responsibility is as absurd as asking the question, “What is your favourite cereal?” and getting the answer, “television”.

Despite the varied and deep political debates raging about like wildfires, what if the entire issue rested on a single premise: Is Jacob Zuma amoral?

The man tasked with the Moral Regeneration Movement, who in 2002 informed Parliament that this was “taking root at every level”, was dismissed less than three years later as deputy president and faced 783 counts of corruption.

Despite being a “pastor”, he stood accused of raping (he was later acquitted) the daughter of one friend and fathering the child of another. In the former case, the depth of his responsibility (if nothing else) was that he showered after his libidinal encounter, knowing that she was HIV positive. She died just a few months ago. In the latter, the president apologised for his extramarital transgressions only after the matter became public.

Then there’s the orbital issue of Nkandla. A R246 million spend of taxpayers’ money on a palatial homestead. Finally undertaking to pay back a fraction of the small change, only under duress, Zuma vented his frustrations at the parliamentary lectern, “Nkandla. Nkaaaaaandla”, as if it was just a nuisance.

More headshaking and a laugh. Could amorality allow one to do that – laugh it off and move on?

Several stalwarts have referred to the president’s loss of his “moral compass”, but how can one lose what one does not have? Traits that may have served well for a chief of “underground structures” and “intelligence” are not quite as desirable for a public servant with formidable power. A president derives this title from presiding. The antonyms for “preside” include: employee, subordinate, aide, tail, acolyte. Who is presiding, who is tailing and whose interests dictate?

A helpful reality check, albeit somewhat depressing, is that appealing to individual goodwill and the common good will not work. Remember, the amoral character lies beyond good and evil. This would be like trying to placate a hungry child with a stone.

The confused categories simply don’t work. Despite attempts to resuscitate the conscience of the president, including defibrillation by business, civil society and government itself, there appears to be no sign of life. This would not be surprising, if indeed Zuma were to be considered amoral.

How might we respond to the dilemma of a leader who lies outside of the known moral universe?

“One and the same is the knowledge of opposites,” an old professor once chanted, quoting Aquinas who drew on Aristotle. If the challenge revolves around the amoral, then a response lies in imploring those who are not amoral, who are not sucking the marrow out of an already dry bone, to come forward, and to do so rapidly, in numbers and sustainably.

It is ironic that a seemingly amoral president suddenly has a new-found desire for “radical economic transformation”.

Despite the seductive appeal to the youth, the unemployed and the growing poor who depend on support grants, the reality is less sexy. The first transformation needed is metanoia, change of heart. How about a radical moral transformation, then, and that ever elusive moral regeneration movement, even?

Tschudin is the executive director of Good Governance Africa

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  protests  |  politics
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