Zuma’s dangerous moral diffidence

2009-10-03 00:00

WHEN he took office earlier this year, President Jacob Zuma expressed his admiration for the conciliatory tenor of the Nelson Mandela years.

Zuma has since, with some success, cloaked himself in that style, both in how he has dealt with racial friction and in his soothing of poisonous divisions within the African National Congress alliance. Nevertheless, his understanding of how Mandela achieved his success as a statesman is shallow and flawed.

Mandela was a conciliator and reconciliator, not because he thought it was smart politics or would be a welcome change from the krag­dadigheid of his Afrikaner predecessors. His actions were the disarmingly simple outcome of an intricate and nuanced set of personal values. Consequently, while Mandela’s opponents, including many within the ANC, might have disagreed with his decisions, they had to accord them some grudging respect. A Mandela standpoint might be unpopular, but one mostly had to admire the palpable moral logic behind it.

That is not to say that Mandela was a naïve idealist. He knew that pragmatism sometimes meant shelving morality, at least temporarily. But the generally consistent values that drove Mandela’s actions crucially helped restore faith in government by a citizenry that had been alienated by decades of government venalit­y and turpitude. For example, Mandela did not pause to weigh the benefits of a complicit silence towards a powerful, oil-rich state, when the Nigerian government hanged the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. He immediately called for the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria, although this arguably diminished South Africa’s influence on the continent.

Zuma inherits from Thabo Mbeki a nation as divided by racist bile and intolerance of dissent as was the one that Mandela inherited from F. W. de Klerk. If Mandela’s solution was conciliation, Zuma’s solution is a parody of that: to be relentlessly affable, all things to all men. In the long run, this won’t work. South Africa’s creaking social concord cannot be remedied by being warm and fuzzy, unable to draw a line when people behave abominably.

Take Julius Malema. Many dismiss the ANC Youth League president’s racist, sexist, and threatening behaviour as mere buffoonery. It isn’t. Malema has the potential to cause considerable damage to both the ANC and to the nation. And the longer he crashes around unrestrained, the more difficult it will become to curb him, since he is gathering about him a growing support base of those with similarly feral tendencies.

Malema has often showed his disdain of the law with threats of violence in support of Zuma, by allegedly slapping a police reservist and this week with his disclosure that he doesn’t feel he has to pay traffic fines. The nub of it is that Malema believes that the state, as personified by Zuma, will not or cannot act against him.

Zuma’s silent diffidence towards Malema is emblematic of the difference between conciliation and the appeasement that stems from Zuma’s inability to assert authority unambiguously.

The Constitution grants Zuma political authority, but personal authority is more nebulous. A president who cannot or will not exercise it, will ultimately undermine respect for the state itself.

Before his fall from Mbeki’s grace, Zuma headed the government’s Moral Re-armament Movement. That this incongruousness has been airbrushed from Zuma’s biography on the ANC site — as have been his legal difficulties and firing as deputy president — indicate perhaps that Zuma and his colleagues feel that he lacks moral credibility.

Whatever Zuma’s history, it is a diffidence that needs urgently to be remedied because an unabashedly ethically based and morally authoritative administration is exactly what the country needs. Its absence presages Zuma eventually losing control of the country, with calamitous implications.

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