Melissa Harris-Perry’s piece made me think about how South Africa’s public intellectuals interpret Jacob Zuma’s presidency and, more broadly, the ANC.
I’ve chosen 12 of my favourite thinkers as a telescope to understand how Zuma is understood and portrayed.
We are fortunuate to have a wide range of opinion that allows us to put together a complex understanding of democratic South Africa’s fourth president.
He lacks an obvious coterie of support. While former president Thabo Mbeki had a formal following in the Native Club, Zuma does not.
This is because Mbeki had a clear vision for his term: the idea of an African Renaissance and his support for a 21st-century version of black consciousness appealed to a range of black intellectuals in government, business, the media and academia.
This buttressed his support but, sadly, the club did not hold up the looking glass honestly enough to show Mbeki where he was going wrong.
Prince Mashele is the only one of the Native Club who maintains a large public role. He is probably the analyst the Presidency reads first, even if just to scoff at it.
The president’s greatest currency is that he is friendly, easy to talk to and open to debate. This is also his Achilles’ heel, since it makes decision-making and policy unclear.
Zuma’s strongest criticism comes from Avusa’s editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya. His columns in the Sunday Times set the tone for how the Presidency is understood. While he started out supportive, this has changed with Zuma’s out-of-wedlock baby and Julius Malema’s hijacking of the political agenda.
Makhanya is followed in impact by Justice Malala, a columnist at The Times and the presenter of e.tv’s Justice Factor. Malala’s tone is often one of “oh no, look what they’ve done now”.
The narrative of the Presidency has been beset by big scandals, such as the ArcelorMittal deal and the lavish, publicly funded lifestyle of local government Minister Sicelo Shiceka. These stories have not been mediated by a communication strategy that accentuates the positives.
Zuma’s spokesperson Zizi Kodwa is less strategic than he used to be. He used to brief excellently with insight.
Neither is Zuma blessed in his choice of Jimmy Manyi as chief government spokesperson.
So, even the president’s supportive analysts – such as Sipho Seepe, Xolela Mangcu and Karima Brown – have turned negative.
Seepe has written on these pages of a sense of drift in the Presidency ahead of the national general council last year.
Mangcu dislikes the reduced role of thinking and intellectualism. According to him, the emphasis on technocratic management and performance evaluation means that there is no governing philosophy now.
Brown is still the best political navigator of the various factions that make up the Zuma alliance. But when I’ve watched her on e.tv, she is a more critical patriot than she was in the run-up to Polokwane.
Her depth of understanding of the ANC is matched by Aubrey Matshiqi’s.
An interesting and coalescing group within the pundits is the constitutionalists. Stewarded by Sipho Pityana, who heads the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, it has started an anti-graft campaign.
Pityana’s timbre is neither for nor against any politician or political party. That’s what happens when you hold up the Constitution as the lodestar, and measure the body politic against it.
In his corner is Richard Calland, probably our most global political analyst.
Mamphela Ramphele is also in this camp and her columns suggest she is using her leadership much more.
City Press’ Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is a contrarian and independent voice.
Although we have a wide range of thinking, Zuma would do well to cultivate a few who speak for him.