Lessons from Zuma's leadership


WHAT did former president Jacob Zuma teach us as a leader?

While many remember the days when South Africa was under the leadership of this African National Congress giant as if they were just the other day – because they were – this has somehow been a difficult question to get politicians to give a straight answer to.

The saying “a week is a long time in politics” has proven true in South Africa. Even though Zuma was widely expected to endure a healthy dose of setbacks after being replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president, few expected the moves Zuma made on his meteoric rise to catch up with him as quickly as they did.

The year is not even a full quarter of the way through, and Zuma has been walked out of the Union Buildings. Last week the original decision to charge him with corruption, fraud and racketeering back in 2005 was reaffirmed by national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams. That decision, of course, is likely to be taken on review by Zuma.

Even the most optimistic of Zuma sympathisers will struggle to find silver linings in the nine-year storm, making it extremely difficult to cast Zuma as a masterly statesman, let alone an excellent one. His Stalingrad-style bids at evading court action are one of the first signs critics point to when justifying their view that Zuma’s administration set South Africa back.

Instead of many hands making hard work light, his super-sized Cabinet is believed to have allowed too many chefs to spoil the broth at best, and allowing unsustainable patronage networks at taxpayers’ expense at worst.

Even his administration’s expansion of the social welfare safety net and anti-retroviral medication to people living with HIV (critical as they were) are dismissed as moves in the name of political expediency, and a simple case of “doing what the former president [Thabo Mbeki] refused to do”.

Long walk from freedom

The past nine years have dealt untold damage to institutions designed to protect SA’s constitutional democracy and entrench the rule of law. Author and political analyst Yunus Momoniat wrote in Business Day on Monday describing years of papering over past allegations of corruption that implicated him as “the end of the ANC of Mandela” and a “long walk from freedom”.

This includes the dissolution of the Scorpions which were replaced with the Hawks, the removal of people in key positions in criminal justice agencies and cookie cutting the scope of the Seriti arms deal commission to ignore sub-contractors where the bulk of the corruption took place, he said.

But what positives can be gleaned from the Zuma years that South Africa can thank itself for in the future? It appears that the overall consensus, at least among MPs, is that his time in office put the judiciary, civil society and chapter nine institutions through their paces and they all largely emerged more robust and polished.

Some in the ANC believe it is futile to isolate whatever legacy Zuma may have to his own acts and decisions as an individual. ANC MP Mtikeni Sibande told Fin24 that the ANC president acts with the mandate of the party’s members, and the two cannot be separated.

“When a president of the ANC is deployed to government, they do not go there with their own mind and ideas. They go with the mandate of the movement. When you want to take them and look at them as an individual, you miss that. We are a collective here. There is no individual leader,” said Sibande.

However, fellow ANC MP Mnyamezeli Booi was more frank about the impact he believes Zuma’s leadership had on the country. He told Fin24 that South Africans were able to stand their ground and protect their democracy, and that our institutions stood up for the Constitution and the law.

“My answer is very simple. We must always respect the Constitution and when society makes demands, we must respect it. That is where the single weakness of the leadership came about,” said Booi.

Democratic Alliance MP Phumzile Van Damme told Fin24 that the Zuma administration gave her unexpected insights into the president’s power to influence the legislature into approving their whims.

“I think as a young MP entering Parliament in 2014, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, determined to make a difference, I quickly became disillusioned realising that Zuma had also captured Parliament. Parliament merely served as a rubber stamp for his decisions and to protect him,” said Van Damme.

She did say, however, that without the Zuma administration Parliament may not have had the opportunity to prove how robust it could be in holding the executive accountable, like it did during the SABC inquiry, which took place during the Zuma years.

“I then learned how to be an effective MP in spite of this [challenge], which involved sheer hard work, asking the right questions, making convincing arguments, kicking down doors when they refused to open to ensure that I did my job to hold government accountable,” she said.

African People’s Convention MP Themba Godi told Fin24 a little-known fact about Zuma is that he initiated more investigations into corruption than his predecessors as president, if nothing else, in a ceremonial capacity. However, the sheer volume of corruption undermined this.

“I think what is overriding is the paradox being the fact that the president signed more proclamations for the SIU (Special Investigating Unit) to investigate than any president before him, and yet it seems that governance is slipping away,” said Godi.

A touchstone for the letter of the Constitution

Godi said the Zuma administration became the guinea pig for a nation in motion, trying to give life and meaning to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.

“The contradiction that plays itself out in the administration of his leadership was part of a natural process of us processing and internalising the roles which each sector in society plays and the standard to which we should play those roles,” he said.

Even though former public protector Thuli Madonsela is widely celebrated as Zuma’s best appointee as president, he is probably still smarting from her 2014 report into the undue benefits he incurred from upgrades to his Nkandla home at taxpayers' expense.

She is also hailed for another report in 2016, which engraved the term “state capture” into the national lexicon, although the term itself has its origins in a World Bank report from the year 2000.

Philosophy is awash with examples of how painful and maddening experiences carry the wisest lessons.

Perhaps the real jewel to be found in what the country went through in the past nine years is not knowing that Zuma failed to supplant a Constitutional democracy, but that our Constitutional democracy is equal to the task of defending itself should someone worse come along and clinch political power.

  • Khulekani Magubane is a Fin24 reporter. Views expressed are his own.
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