Zuma, the people pleaser

2012-08-11 11:48

A president who just can’t say no walks into a bar with 50 million people ...

You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.

Had Abraham Lincoln been speaking to President Jacob Zuma, this may have been his advice.

Because Zuma is a pleaser, he’s not known for saying “no”.

When people come to him with a proposal, whatever it may be, he’s more inclined to say: “We will discuss it, we will debate.”

Now, this is probably a good quality for some jobs, such as being a peace broker, a dealmaker or the chair of the world debating championships, but it’s less helpful when you’re a South African president.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

When Mbeki finally went too far, when he was just too cold and aloof for the tastes of the majority in his party, the ANC put its weight behind their new man, Zuma, because in him they saw someone approachable, someone they thought would listen to all their pleas and implement the policies of the ANC as a collective – policies which they imagined could all be arrived at “by consensus”.

Zuma would do whatever the ANC wanted him to do – he made that clear in many interviews at the time.

He was, he said proudly, a servant of the ANC.

He was, in a phrase, someone who wanted to be told what to do.

But there’s no one senior to him, and the people below him are telling him what to do all right, but they’re all telling him to do a hundred different things.

So, unfortunately, he simply does nothing. There’s always the next presidential wedding, which helps to at least pass the time.

By not having a clear and inspirational vision of his own and the hard stubbornness to bring people around to his way of thinking, the entire ANC has fast become an organisation lacking any strong sense of character.

In just a few short years, it’s difficult for anyone to say with authority what it is the ANC actually stands for now.

All we know for sure is that one of its new, bedrock principles is: don’t mock the president, he has dignity.

An organisation with a good leader is like an extension of that leader. In a very real sense, whenever a British soldier crossed bayonets with a German one in World War II, it was Churchill and Hitler fighting.

For all his failings, at least it’s easy to say what Mbeki stood for – he knew his own mind, and if he was guilty of anything it was of sticking to his principles too stubbornly.

But Zuma’s way is even worse. It’s weak-willed and chameleon-like, reminding one of the film character Zelig, who becomes like whoever he’s talking to because he so badly wants people to like him.

When Zuma visited the Afrikaners, he told them flattering things, ditto capitalist business leaders and communists; when he was with the ANC Youth League he told them how wonderful they were, and they should keep shaking things up.

It didn’t matter what Julius Malema and company did or said, as long as they kept on saying: “We like Zuma, he’s the man.”

It was only when Malema started saying those less-than-flattering things about Zuma that he sprang into action and more-or-less vaporised Malema’s political career.

The same “I just want to be popular” attitude came to the fore when Brett Murray displayed The Spear.

Murray’s crime was in reminding Zuma – admittedly very brutally – that not everyone thinks he’s wonderful, regardless of how charming he may be.

So Zuma led his party to march against a painting, of all things.

Even Helen Zille once said she finds Jacob Zuma “very charming”.

But charm is superficial, a thin veneer that without the substance of solid material grown over decades, is just always going to be cheap and short lived.

Trying to please everyone all the time makes everyone think they and their ideas are in with a shot.

They are, predictably, disappointed when they don’t get their way.

That is when you start to see supposed adults in the ANC throwing chairs at one another in meetings.

Talking about social cohesion is good, but decisive leadership actually inspires it.

Even a man as popular as Nelson Mandela was not afraid to make deeply unpopular decisions, such as keeping the Springbok emblem.

There should be time for everyone to throw their ideas in a hat, but a good leader selects which of those ideas will define his term.

He takes a stand and is clear on what he wants to get people to rally behind it and, if they don’t want to, to replace him.

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