Zuma: It’s about leading, not reading

2013-10-13 14:00

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No one doubts that Number 1 can read, but according to sources he’s not reading what he should be.

Who is disrespecting whom exactly?

The rumpus about Jacob Zuma’s reading habits has provoked heat and light, apparently prompting the president himself to suggest to a church audience that those who do not respect leaders may be “bordering on a curse” – an intimation that is as sinister as it is offensive to the Constitution.

It has been intriguing to watch the public debate unfold in response to my new book, The Zuma Years: South Africa’s Changing Face of Power, and its assertion.

This is based on a quote from a senior Cabinet minister, that one of the problems with Zuma’s presidency is that he does not read Cabinet memorandums and other briefing documents, and that this undermines his ability to grasp the detail of policy debates in Cabinet and, thereby, his ability to lead government effectively.

Like the old joke about the man who went to a fight and an ice hockey game broke out, an intelligent discussion about the attributes required of a modern-day head of government emerged once the initial vitriol had died away – at least until the president entered the fray with his absurd biblical interpretation.

Among other things, I was accused of snobbery and class bias.

But this criticism misses the point, which is not about whether someone who did not receive much of a formal education – such as Zuma – can lead a government (although precisely such a debate has been raging in India for some time), but about whether they have the aptitude required to do so effectively.

The issue is about leading, not reading.

Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, who I have had the privilege of meeting on more than one occasion, is impressive for many reasons, one of them being that despite his modest working class upbringing and the racial discrimination that limited his educational opportunities, he is a voracious reader who works tirelessly to keep step with the Cabinet of progressive intellectuals that he was self-confident enough to appoint when he won power in 2006. Morales is the first indigenous Bolivian to become president.

The issue is whether a head of government has the serious intent, focus and industriousness required of the job, as well as the integrity and resolve to avoid being distracted by his or her own private interests.

Any cabinet, especially one with as many competing ideological tendencies as the current one, requires a tight hand on the tiller.

Is it really too much to expect that a leader take the trouble to acquaint himself or herself with a sufficient amount of the detail of government policy making?

Zuma can read, it’s just that, according to my sources in Cabinet and the presidency, he fails to read what he should.

If this is so, then does he not disrespect both his office and those he is supposed to serve?

An instinct for politics and an astute understanding of how power works, both of which Zuma clearly has in spades – his raw intelligence is really not in doubt – is simply not enough in the modern era.

There are implications for the entire government.

As I researched The Zuma Years, I came across many public servants who toil away with sincerity and a genuine commitment to serving the public despite the obstacles posed by incompetent or corrupt colleagues.

The response of such officials this past fortnight has been revealing: amusement at the public revelation of what they already know all too well about the man they now call, with open and undisguised irony and derision, “Number 1”.

Familiarity, it seems, has bred contempt.

In any organisation, the tone that is set from the top matters greatly.

Unlike Morales – a president, by the way, who took a substantial pay cut as an example to the Bolivian elite – Zuma’s style of leadership does nothing to persuade people that a culture of learning is a desirable feature of any successful society. Instead, he prefers to attack “clever blacks”.

In sharp contrast, ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa went out of his way a few weeks ago to tell a university audience how much value he attaches to reading, with his admirable goal of getting through at least one book a week – a standard we should all seek to emulate.

So, on reflection, it’s about leading and reading.

»?The presidency is just one of 16 centres of power examined in Calland’s new book, The Zuma Years: South Africa’s Changing Face of Power. Other centres it looks at include the corporate boardrooms, the judges and the ANC and the unions

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