Why Zuma is seen as missing in action

2011-08-13 12:27

Our president is not sunning himself on a beach, neither is he tending his fields. He’s a hard-working guy with a platter of engagements that stretch his days from before sunrise to well after dark.

Like US President Barack Obama, President Jacob Zuma has aged in office. Caught by a camera’s insistent gaze, at times his brow is furrowed, his smile a little less deep than it used to be.

Being in office is tough work, especially with a teetering economy, crisis-level joblessness ­(Adcorp warned this week that more than 400 000 South Africans could hit the unemployment lines by the end of the year) and the challenge of trying to govern a fractious lot of people.

So why is there a persistent and growing view that the president is missing in action? It’s not a media-fuelled narrative, but one that has taken hold in general society.

And if you look at Zuma’s most recent pronouncements – on Adam Kok commemorations, on Women’s Day, on his visit to Burundi this week and when he received the Freedom of Makana – the reason is clear.

The presidency is caught up in the habit of looking backward to a history of struggle in celebration rather than showing that it is able to tackle the challenges of present-day governance with an equally steady eye.

It is an affliction suffered by the ANC in general.

Three immediate lacuna make it clear: the inability of the presidency to address the leasing scandal; the inability of Zuma as ANC head to stop the ANC Youth League from confusing both foreign and economic policy globally; and the absence of the first citizen from the announcement of the biggest step in health reform this week.

Think back to last year when the US embarked on its biggest restructuring of the health sector. Obama led the charge because health is that important.

Questions are numerous, ranging from what it will cost you and I to how on earth it will be possible to fix our ailing public health system.

The leasing scandal is huge and the Public Protector has found that two Cabinet ministers have big questions to answer. Yet the president has failed to address the issue, raising a real concern that he is checkmated.

There is a view that Zuma cannot act either against Police Commissioner Bheki Cele or Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde because they may in turn point out that Roux Shabangu transacted with presidential support.

Lindiwe Zulu, ironically the president’s adviser on international relations, has complained publicly that the youth league’s pronouncements on geopolitics with Botswana and Zimbabwe are harming the state’s diplomacy.

Her boss is yet to chasten the league. It’s no surprise then that while Zuma is very present, he is also missing in action.

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