In defence of Jacob Zuma

2015-03-10 06:00

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Before he coined the saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, then US president Bill Clinton was famous for a much catchier and more profound slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Long before he wrapped his lips around cigars and saxophones in the White House, this saying became synonymous with him.

Okay, it was not quite his invention, but that of his 1992 presidential campaign team who wanted to ambush George Bush Sr by focusing public opinion on the recessionary economy.

The slogan worked wonders and Clinton lived up to it. He triumphed in the November elections and turned Bush into a one-term president. He went on to turn the economy around and, by the time he made way for Bush Jr in 2000, the country was almost at full employment.

The Clinton slogan is one President Jacob Zuma might want to plagiarise when dealing with critics arguing with him about the extent of black control of the JSE. To those who have been trying to be clever by quibbling over his figures, President Zuma should say, “It’s the wealth gap, stupid.”

It is well and good to pick on our nearly literate and almost numerate president. Finding material for comedy skits and Sunday braais in his speeches has become such a national pastime that we pillory him even when he is on the right track.

The response to his recent comments on the JSE is a case in point. His latest sin was to state that “the black majority still owns only 3% of the JSE, pointing to the need to move faster to economic emancipation”.

As soon as he finished his speech, the masses were rushing to their garden sheds to fetch pitchforks and axes. Others wove thorn crowns and collected nails and hammers in preparation for nailing him to the cross.

Those connected to the other world made a call to Beelzebub and told him to prepare a Cape Town-like inferno for Zuma in the underground kingdom.

Even Solidarity, that enduring defender of truth and principle, climbed in on the act, accusing Zuma of “fuelling racial tensions”.

This was rich coming from a crowd that believes it is still fighting 1980s border wars and probably still refers to Zambia as Northern Rhodesia.

The outcry against Zuma’s comments has, quite frankly, gone way overboard.

While his critics have been correct to point him in the direction of the latest research, there was more than a tinge of denial about the racialised nature of South Africa’s wealth gap. Yes, it is true that to deal with a problem, you always need accurate information to show what you are dealing with and to measure progress.

But while the accuracy of the data is absolutely necessary, an honest appreciation of the problem is paramount. This appreciation was glaringly absent in the past fortnight’s commentary, which veered towards the snide and mean.

The voice of reason was presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj, who reminded the critics about the inequality the country faces.

“It is essential that the ownership landscape of entities operating in South Africa reflects that the majority of people living in the country are black people. This is key in order to confront our past as a country and redress the imbalances caused by the legacy of apartheid,” he said.

This was a lot more useful than screaming matches and egg-throwing.

All available evidence shows that in the more than two decades that the country became a democracy, wealth has remained skewed very favourably towards white South Africans and poverty very unfavourably towards black South Africans.

Statistics on income levels, occupations, property ownership, mortality and access to health and education tell the same story. They paint a picture of a country battling to cast off one of apartheid’s great legacies: the impoverishment of the majority. It also forces us to reach for that scary cliché about time bombs.

We can all accuse President Zuma and his party of failing to adequately transform society. An argument that has been thrown at him is that it was government’s job to ensure that the racial nature of our economy was dealt with.

It was also their responsibility to ensure the economy grew at such a rate that people were lifted out of poverty and opportunities were created for all citizens. Some have pointed to the ineptitude and corruption in government as the reasons for the lack of progress. Those on the left have blamed so-called conservative economic policies practised by post-1994 governments.

All have a point. But it is when a mistake – if it was a mistake – is used to beat the president that the debate becomes fake.

So in defence of the president, this lowly newspaperman charges that this debate is a farce.

If he was wrong, it should have been pointed out – like the JSE did – but the focus should have returned to the second part of his sentence, “the need to move faster to economic emancipation”.

It is around this commitment and pledge that we should call him to account.

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