Honeymoon for Zuma

2009-05-09 00:00

WHAT a boykie! Loves to dance, fancies himself as a singer, albeit with a most limited repertoire, and always with a bevy of young beauties on his arm.

We are talking, of course, about Jacob Zuma, who is today to be inaugurated as president. He is the enigma on whom South Africa awaits with perhaps greater trepidation than when the sea change of 1994 took place.

When I recently suggested that the Zuma presidency was not necessarily South Africa’s political equivalent of planet Earth being struck by a meteorite, the reaction was furious. One Jewish reader said that the column was nauseating. “I felt as if I were in that queue being told that we were going to the showers instead of the gas chambers.”

Emotion notwithstanding, Zuma takes office with less power than any of his post-democracy predecessors. Despite the 65% vote that the African National Congress achieved, its majority is proportionately less than that of his predecessors and he is the first ANC leader to shed black votes in large chunks.

Many people who voted for the ANC did so with reservations. In a future election, between a 10th to a fifth of these supporters could shift alliance or abstain, depending on how Zuma performs.

Zuma inherits a battered, demoralised country, sliding down the wave towards a potentially devastating economic contraction. There is little space for the distracting affectations and destructive dalliances that characterised the era of Thabo Mbeki.

That is one side of the equation. One must equally consider that however flawed Zuma might be, he has been elected to the nation’s highest office and deserves a chance. Not to be given free rein or a free ride, but at least to be given some benefit of the doubt.

This is not to ask for a chorus of claquery but for his critics, in the American tradition of a honeymoon period for the new president, to set aside, however briefly, partisan point scoring and old grudges.

It is, for instance, the moment for cartoonist Zapiro to abandon the shower head which, since Zuma’s rape trial where Zuma infamously brushed off the danger of unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman by explaining that he had showered, he has depicted as emerging from Zuma’s head. What was brilliant satire is now simply stale.

Since Zuma appears to have moved on, until his actions prove otherwise, let’s take him at his word.

Zuma promised Parliament this week an era of “forgiveness, humility and reconciliation”, based on the precepts of Nelson Mandela, in which his government would stop being “over-defensive when criticised”.

This might be political flim-flam or his honest intention. There are two simple litmus tests to determine which it is: what happens with the judiciary and the media.

With the judiciary, Zuma has to resist the temptation to pack the Constitutional Court with jurists selected on the basis of their personal loyalty. There are a number of judges who have indicated their willingness to do judicial skivvy work.

The antics of Cape Judge President John Hlophe, for one, have tainted him beyond redemption and he should quietly be sent packing.

With the media, Zuma must abandon the ANC goal of some kind of state media tribunal to curb what it views as excesses. Such a body has no place in a democracy and, besides, it won’t work.

Similarly, Zuma should withdraw the dozen or so libel actions he has pending against various newspapers, journalists and cartoonists.

If and when Zuma fails these tests, which after all reflect his stated intentions, then we can in good conscience get back to savaging him.

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