A shortage of inspirational leadership

2008-01-12 00:00

While it is understandable that ordinary members of the African National Congress wanted a leader with a common touch, one can only marvel that they wanted him, gulp, this common.

Sunday’s newspapers were full of pictures of ANC president Jacob Zuma dressed in leopard skin, tummy sagging past his loin cloth, celebrating his marriage to his fourth wife with some Zulu foot-stomping and brandishing of his traditional weapon. Several men wore crowns with their leopard skins — of the kind donned at Christmas parties, made of cut-out paper — and along with Zuma’s white takkies, gave a new definition to tribal chic.

The stifled guffaws from the gallery are not because of ethnic insensitivity. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi often dons the leopard skins of Zulu royalty and never looks anything but regal. But then he is a Zulu prince of long lineage and comports himself with an assured dignity.

In Zuma’s case the regal trappings are just fashion accoutrements. This was more costume party than royal wedding, since the leopard skin is reserved for royalty and whatever his qualifications to be the next president of the nation, an ancient royal lineage is not one of them. Perhaps the show was intended as a signal that if he failed in the bid to be president of the nation, his supporters would just crown him king?

The Zuma style could not be more different from that of the country’s other president. One never sees photographs of President Thabo Mbeki letting it all hang out, so to speak. The Chief, as his acolytes like to call him, is a man of perhaps excessive decorum but it does give him a gravitas that is useful when bargaining with the developed world about things like a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

There is something to be said, though, for Zuma’s Clown Prince behaviour. It feeds into every stereotype that racist Westerners have of Africans and may yet give the canny Zuma — who has a reputation as a diplomat and negotiator — an edge when it comes to leadership summits. Assuming Zuma to be a buffoon can be a fatal flaw, as Mbeki discovered last month at Polokwane.

The leadership styles of Mbeki and Zuma have been thrown into sharp relief by the Barack Obama phenomenon, the African-American presidential hopeful. Obama is an inspirational leader in the mould of a Mandela and his ability to tap into the idealistic side of American voters has propelled him — despite his youth, race and lack of experience in government — to being a frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination.

It is by no means certain that Obama will win the nomination, never mind the presidency, but the revival of optimism and hope that his candidacy has sparked in disillusioned American voters is remarkable. For the first time since John F. Kennedy there is an aspirant president who can inspire voters to look beyond the cynicism and negativity of the political process, in search of a new national agenda.

In contrast, Mbeki’s presidency, now limping towards closure, has been derailed because of his manipulative, intolerant leadership. ANC members have chosen instead to follow Zuma because of his easy-going, friendly manner and apparent willingness to listen to the views of others.

What is most important, of course, is not style but substance. Whatever Mbeki’s lack of personal skills, South Africa on balance has done well under his presidency.

And however endearing the persona of the ebullient Zuma, his leadership record does not augur well. There is, for example, his willingness to exploit the mob hysteria he arouses as an implicit threat against his opponents.

At his rape trial his supporters were disgracefully abusive of his accuser and women in general, yet Zuma never tried to rein them in. Similarly, he has remained silent as some of his supporters raise the spectre of public insurrection if he is tried and found guilty of racketeering and corruption.

The Clown Prince might yet turn out to be anything but a good laugh.

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