Internal machinations trump leadership

2010-10-23 00:00

A PERSISTENT criticism of President Jacob Zuma is lack of leadership — a penchant for procrastination, obfuscation or evasion when faced with a controversial decision.

While this is often interpreted as a character flaw, that is too simplistic. Leadership paralysis is an affliction that would beset anyone trying to lead the African National Congress in the post-Thabo Mbeki era.

The Tripartite Alliance proved to be impossible to herd into single file without resorting to authoritarian leadership, a style that got the previous president fired. Any post-Polokwane leader would be foolish indeed not to pick his way carefully between competing factions and not to “lead” until quite sure as to exactly where the ANC wants to be led.

As Zuma showed at the ANC’s mid-term council, he can act decisively once he has gauged the situation. Unfortunately, his caution means an inability to act swiftly on matters that are urgent, but over which there is unresolved internal dissent.

The upside is a government that consequently spends most of its energy on arguing, huffing and puffing but not acting. This is a president — spared the Messianic self-belief and transforming vision of an Mbeki — who does not do much good, but thus far hasn’t done too much harm either.

Take the chaos in the ANC and its alliance ranks over proposed curbs on the media. Given the visceral ANC antipathy to criticism, such curbs should be a doddle. Yet the ANC is in turmoil with pro and anti groups in a titanic public struggle. Zuma remains resolutely irresolute, despite his personal preference for curbs, waiting on the internal democratic processes of the ANC to deliver a compromise that he can safely champion.

But while Zuma’s leadership style allows space within the ANC for the media democrats to rally against the media despots, there is no guarantee that the democrats will win. And if the despots do prevail, Zuma will as readily lead them as he would lead the democrats.

Speaking at the SA National Editors Forum at the weekend, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe made conciliatory noises about the sanctity of the Constitution and press freedom, saying that the media would be given “space” to strengthen existing self-regulatory bodies. The ANC has hastily since warned that Motlanthe’s words should not be misinterpreted as meaning that the media tribunal would not still be considered by Parliament, but it clearly indicates that the ANC is backing off overt curbs.

Former cabinet minister, Professor Kader Asmal, warns however that the greatest danger may not be regulatory. There is, he said, “a tacit discourse of fear and self-censorship which stalks all these debates about media behaviour and possible control mechanisms”.

“Intimidatory tactics breed an atmosphere of fear of persecution which results in self-censorship, which may be more effective than actual censorship. No self-regulation must surrender the core element of a free press — its right to determine its own opinions and to record the facts. Neither must there be … self-regulation to meet the needs or prejudices of economic or political power.”

Asmal’s observations regarding intimidation resonate with the authority of the insider. Intimidation is a favoured ANC tactic — used also against white farmers to achieve the rapid, voluntary and cheap surrender of land — to accomplish by threat what it is unwilling to legislate for, because of public relations and constitutional concerns.

South Africa is in a situation where its future is determined not by conventional parliamentary mechanisms, but by the degree to which the ANC’s internal mechanisms tolerate dissent and debate, and make decisions. At this moment, Zuma’s leadership — whether this be shaped by circumstance or character — is largely peripheral.

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