It is time to accept that Zuma is President

2015-03-22 07:04

The much-anticipated “Pay Back the Money” parliamentary debate finally took place. If you were too busy to watch it live, you probably missed that it happened. There were no splashy headlines; I doubt it even made it to front pages.

The EFF-led opposition benches, which had carried the campaign, fizzled and then seared into smog. Zuma commanded the National Assembly podium, ripping his opponents to shreds. His exchange with General Bantu Holomisa, a former head of state, was painful to watch. So much so Malema had to intervene and save the General.

Parliament even debated the contentious vote of no confidence. The motion—which kept tongues wagging for over a year and resulted in a lengthy judgment by the country’s top court—fell flat on its face. Zuma emerged victorious. The media seems not to have noticed.

The decision to ignore Zuma’s stellar performance in Parliament was not incidental. For years, the Fourth Estate aligned itself with the “Anything But Zuma” campaign. Mainstream reporters, columnists, bloggers and analysts are all too happy to brandish Zuma’s gaffes. The trend is to shun his successes.

I accept that the media has a right to embrace or reject a president. As I have noted on this blog before, I neither subscribe to nor support the idea of an "impartial media". However, I think the media should be fair and balanced. Unbalanced and unfair reporting leads to information asymmetry, which is bad for democracy. Let us explore some of the asymmetries in South Africa.

First, Zuma the man

Mainstream media consumers are fed a narrative that Jacob Zuma is an airhead. The suggestion is that he ascended to the presidency through corruption and political backscratching.

Zuma is a career politician, no doubt. As such, he has had his fair share of scandal. However, he is not an airhead. He clawed his way to the top job through a combination of politics and public service.

According to Jeremy Gordin, his biographer, Zuma became active in the ANC in 1959 at the tender age of 17. He became a guerrilla fighter in Umkhonto We Sizwe in 1962. He was arrested in 1963 and spent the next 10 years at Robben Island.

After his release from the Island, Zuma was instrumental in in re-establishing the ANC in Natal. He left for exile in 1977 and clawed his way up the command chain. He made Head of Underground Structures in Zambia, and was later appointed Chief of the Intelligence Department.

After the unbanning in 1990, Zuma became instrumental in the negotiation process. Jeremy Gordin and William Gumede note his role in putting out fires and preventing bloodshed in KwaZulu-Natal.

My intention here is not to recite a wiki-style biography of Jacob Zuma. I want to dispel the prevailing sense that his ascent to power was somehow undemocratic. We can debate the man's leadership, as we should, but we must not whitewash the facts. Many people---including Justice Albie Sachs and Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke---have written dotingly about their interactions with Zuma as a leader of the movement.

Second, the state of the nation

South Africa faces many challenges. Among many other things: the economy is in gutter territory; unemployment is in the double digits; poverty is rampant; and corruption is stealing the little that taxpayers put in the coffer. The media generally attributes these problems to Zuma personally. Anyone consuming our news from outside would assume that Zuma runs a banana republic.

To be fair, he is often at the centre of scandal. As a president, he pales in comparison to other vision-driven leaders like India’s Narendra Modi. His “man behind the cloak” style of leadership does not inspire national confidence.

However, our democracy is robust and strong. Most analysts neglect to point out that Zuma’s style is more organizational than personal. The ANC operates on the basis of what is called “collective leadership”—a term coined by Oliver Tambo. An ANC president does not govern as an individual; he or she governs as a representative of the collective.

The current collective, of which Zuma is a representative, has set out a clear national vision: the National Development Plan (NDP). The fact that the NDP is being contested internally does not take away from its clarity. As a long term vision and strategic plan for South Africa, the NDP forms the foundation of Zuma’s efforts. These efforts get very little analysis. The reason, I suspect, is that they may counter the narrative of Zuma as an abominable failure.

So what if the media hates Zuma?

To reiterate, in a free country, the media is within its rights to embrace or reject a president. The problem arises when the media misinforms the public in order to nudge democratic choices. There is ample examples of such misinformation in South Africa.

Let’s take first the economy. Mzwandile Jacks wrote in a column that Zuma’s administration is throwing money at problems “instead of offering a clear strategy to improve public services like housing, education and health.” That is simply not true. The NDP provides detailed policy solutions for those challenges. Jacks simply choses to ignore the NDP in order to play the man. He is not alone.

The second example is Eskom. The commonplace narrative is that Zuma’s policy of expanding demand without increasing supply led to the energy crisis. That is simply not the case. Eskom warned as far back as 1998 that ageing infrastructure and increasing demand would lead to a crisis. The warnings were largely ignored, if not rejected, by government. Contrary to popular belief, since 2009 Zuma’s administration has underwritten billions in loans to Eskom in order to develop new infrastructure. (See report.)

The current trend of reporting Zuma’s failings but ignoring his successes is a disservice to the public. Zuma is a democratically elected president. We do not have to like him but, for as long as he holds his office, reporters and analysts need to engage his policies.

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