If Zuma delivers numbers he scores

2011-06-11 13:04

In surveying our public intellectual landscape and its variety of thought, Ferial Haffajee, in a well-meaning suggestion, (“Not all black intellectuals think alike”) advises the president to cultivate thinkers who can articulate a vision that may buttress his presidency.

But President Jacob Zuma came to office on the backlash of the media’s consistent across-the-board hostility, a hostility that compelled two high court judges and at least one chapter 9 institution to pass censure on it as an invasive travesty of his rights.

Unlike his predecessor – who came to office on the massive goodwill of the media seeing him as a deft, intelligent ­administrator – Zuma, owing to his squalid relationship with now­estranged former financial benefactor Schabir Shaik and a tendentious off-the-record briefing by former National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, had the misfortune to be detested by the ­media politico elite, a relationship that still exists to this day.

Acquitted of a rape charge in the State vs Zuma trial (2006), wherein the judge was compelled to remark on the jaundiced nature of all reporting on that case, except the notable commentary of one lone columnist, Rhoda Kadalie; Zuma, with a wry, ironic smile on his face, shared his observations on pundits with his ­audience outside court.

Speaking in isiZulu, which escaped many reporters that day, he said: “These academics are supposed to be intellectuals who hold up high the right to equality before the law in ­order to enlighten all the citizens about our wonderful Constitution.

But, instead, they hold a veil over equality before the law, justice and the Constitution to leave our people in the dark.”

That candour, containing the ­finest sentiments of Zulu anti-intellectualism, was to set the tone of his ­relationship with anyone who remotely manifested such intellectual propensities.

There is in Zulu thought a fine sentiment of populist anti-intellectualism as found in ­popular expressions, just as there is in English thought.

Just as he posed as a man of action, in contrast to erstwhile president Thabo Mbeki who decidedly set himself up as an intellectual, albeit of ­dubious repute, Zuma has set himself up as a pragmatic president, favouring prosaic, piecemeal solutions rather than grandiose plans.

As the great American poet Walt Whitman sings of himself, Zuma too has “no chair, no church, no philosophy”, and as such he is liable to ­disregard the conceptual environment he operates in.

As the economist Keynes observed of a businessman who pretends to conduct business without an economic theory that he is more likely to be a slave to an antiquated one, Zuma finds himself working off a collage of “found”, popular, old-fashioned ideas that are apparently ­contradictory.

But in his defence, he can always borrow Whitman’s assertion of non-partisanship: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself: (I am large; I contain multitudes.)”

After all, he’s a president. He’s supposed to represent everyone and every view.

His ethics are that of a florid instrumentalist and a utilitarian.Zuma’s lack of interest in cultivating a think-tank sympathetic to him has meant the vacuum has been ­brazenly exploited by ethnocentrists and racist nationalists.

But a set of thinkers sympathetic to his executive vision need not ­create grandiose plans with high-flown rhetoric as was his predecessor’s wont: a pedestrian vision such as we saw in his state of the nation address earlier in the year – plain, ­unadorned, unpretentious yet quite effective and persuasive of its tenets – can do just as well.

Personally, I favour a turn to pedestrian visions: sub-Saharan Africa has had enough of grand plans that have been disastrous and bankrupted many of the continent’s nations.

Think Nkrumah’s fraudulent pan-African socialism; think Senghor’s self-induced indoctrinating negritude; think Nyerere’s hopelessly barren ujaama; think Kaunda’s self-serving socialism, all going up to heaven yet all dismally failed cult articles of faiths.

Indeed, Nepad, an economic programme of the African Union, is but one romantic, delusional grandiose plan that was always more about self-aggrandisement than a frank assessment of the continent’s weaknesses, her corruption-filled past and a genuine commitment to renewal.

African Renaissance was but effusive indulgence.Zuma’s indifference to favourable think-tanks, which are de rigueur for every administration, may perhaps explain the resignation of former ­policy adviser Joel Netshitenzhe, who, along with Mbeki, was the most prominent person with the ability to understand stats.

Netshitenzhe alone could defend government against baseless accusations on service delivery or poverty-reduction progress, solidly basing his information on statistical ­competence.

Zuma, however, has displayed open disregard for stats, so much so that four of his Cabinet ministers – Aaron Motsoaledi, Nathi Mthethwa, Sbu Ndebele and Sicelo Shiceka – caught on to roundly denounce stats as but figures with which we need not concern ourselves.

After all, it’s mere numbers, they claimed.

Astoundingly, Shiceka once told an SABC radio interviewer that there were no stats available on municipal government when a Census as recent as 2007 exists and financial data on municipalities is regularly published.

Stats are dismissed as inappropriate, if not insignificant, because “we’re dealing with human lives” as though figures represent something other than human beings and their world.

During the recent local ­government elections, Zuma was not comfortable rolling stats off his tongue to ­defend the ANC government’s delivery record.

This attitude towards stats represents a vulgar anti-intellectualism that now moves within the ANC and is notoriously represented by ANCYL president Julius Malema – an unreconstructed illiterate – and government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi – a confirmed racist who has an irrational ability to twist stats that verges on the Goebbels-esque.

This attitude has cascaded down to lower rungs of society and in particular ANC members who speak of, and dismiss, stats with disdain.

Stats, Mr President, to borrow Wittgenstein’s phrase on facts, are the true “picture” of “the state of affairs”.

You only need an attitudinal change, Mr President, towards mental production and you will have all the support.

Dlamini is a freelance writer 

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