Leaders and lasting legacies

2009-06-15 00:00

JACOB Zuma was seduced.

When he said he will only stand for one term as president, I believed him. So I wrote an online piece praising this decision, but was fast reminded that politics is not about keeping promises, it’s about breaking them.

A comment left by one anonymous online reader said: “One term? Haha! Yes of course! I see it now … and pigs will grow unicorn horns from their rear ends, while the cat and the cow play fiddles on the moon …”

And so it seems, while waiting for the ink from his State of the Nation address to dry, our president may have been seduced by presidential power.

I’m reminded of Ozymandias, the sonnet published in 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which tells the tale of a ruler who wished his legacy would remain forever, and tried to immortalise himself in a statue that was vast and towering, with an inscribed plaque no less narcissistic.

A traveller from an antique land finds the statue’s remains: half sunk, shattered, and forgotten. But the inscription remained, mortal words of an evaporated legacy: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

It was just stone, abandoned in the desert, and with a broken face lying in the sand.

Power attracts. Absolute power sticks like superglue. Power-hungry presidents with megalomaniac personalities have for decades clung on to their rule with political superglue. Will Zuma be different?

After all, he did say that “my party will remain in power forever and it will not subscribe to the will of mortal men, because it rules by divine right and, therefore, until the end of time and at God’s grace”.

Despite this inflated party-ego, he promised he will not run for a second term as president. This was a miraculous statement coming from a newly elected president in Africa. If he was sincere, he has set the bar very high for himself and his cabinet.

They would have only five years to prove themselves, and that’s it. Our new president in 2014 (Tokya Sexwale? Kgalema Motlanthe?) would have a tough precedent to follow. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a decade-long Zumocracy, but a culture of one-term presidents could strengthen democracy in at least three ways.

Firstly, it curbs even a well-meaning, level-headed statesman from becoming seduced by his power. Take Mugabe. After 29 years, his inability to put Zimbabweans’ interests ahead of his own ego has raped that country of its dignity.

Secondly, it invites a more engaged, active public sphere. Five years is a short political space. Voters can closely track and comment on the performance of their chosen leaders because the deadline for delivery would be shorter. As unfulfilled promises pile up, we would have to abandon the idea that “he’s still got a second term”.

Thirdly, service delivery should increase. After all, Zuma will be judged largely on service delivery. Will there be fewer starving children, fewer illiterate adults, a smaller digital divide, more ARV rollouts, no more beggars on street corners and better motivated health workers, teachers and police? If Zuma gave himself five years, he would have to make big strides in each of these areas to be remembered as the president who made a difference. Two terms might remove the pressure to perform and to get results quickly.

Of course, Zuma has every right to stand for two terms, and I don’t think Parliament will allow a change in the Constitution to enable a third term. Zuma’s one month in office has been hopeful and promising, and he may very well be voted back into office in 2014. If Nelson Mandela was the father of reconciliation and Thabo Mbeki the economic stabiliser, then one term or two, Zuma must be — has to be — the man who delivered.

A free and fair election has afforded him the opportunity to take South Africa forward. In doing so, he will leave behind a personal legacy as president. One hopes that Zuma heeds the metaphor of Ozymandias and remembers the transient nature both of political power and the individual glory that accompanies it.

 

• Suntosh Pillay is an intern clinical psychologist and independent writer.

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