Why Zuma is a better politician than Mandela

2015-02-09 15:36

I know from the outset that Putting Jacob Zuma and Nelson Mandela in one comparative sentence automatically offends a few hero-worshippers who are convinced that former President Nelson Mandela (his soul rest in peace) is a holly icon of the anti-apartheid struggle who must never be criticized. It irritates a few consumers of public relations and political marketing spells who think Mandela is a political-saint whose memory should not be devalued by being compared to the current President, Mr Jacob Zuma.

But the reality is that if we are to look at politics as a profession, politics as an art, politics as a ‘dirty game’ and ‘politics as a vocation’ concerned with the generation, retention and demonstration power and authoritative control of the state and its institutions, we will realize that Zuma is a better politician than the late President Mandela (his soul be in eternal peace). If we look at the (ab)use of power, influence, control, stealth and preparedness to do the expedient we will all agree that Zuma did that better than the good old President Mandela.

The State of the Nation address will be delivered this week. Next week will be what I usually call a ‘week of national mourning’, where South Africans will be mourning yet another not so moving address by the president. Then the week after that it will be business as usual and nothing will happen to Zuma, and this will happen up until he finishes his term. Perhaps, after that he may be asked to stay for a third term as President of the ANC so as ‘to unite the ANC’. So despite how I personally feel about him, and regardless of popular sentiment towards, the man is good in his politics.

Mandela may have been a better man. He may have been a better symbolic head of state and better leader but Zuma is a better politician. Zuma mastered the Machiavellian teachings of realpolitik, and the tactics power, deceit and expediency twice as better than Mandela. You can never doubt that the man was in fact the Head of Intelligence in the ANC’s underground structures as it is widely reported because he is an astute strategist who rules by alliances and knows how to survive organized mini coups from within his own ANC, popular media and popular political discourse.

There are many people who have wanted Zuma’s head on a plate and bade for his blood including Mbeki, Julius Malema and dozens of journalists but none of them has ever had it. From spy tapes to Nkandla Zuma has proven to be an astute tactician and an adroit strategist who can survive the most obvious possibilities of his downfall.

Personally I don’t know how many times I have been disappointed while waiting to write the political obituary of Zuma’s career, but the man is a survivor in the strongest sense of the term. In fact if you think about it Zuma may be this country’s greatest politician, because there will never be another human being in this country that will make it into the Office of the President of South Africa without a matric certificate, facing corruption charges and countless public relations blunders like President Zuma.

If president Mandela had been hit with the same series of scandals that have confronted JZ, he would have probably resigned to keep his honour or he may have lost his moral credentials but Zuma survived because his power is not ‘soft power’, it does not depend on things like morals. Some will be quick to say the spy tapes were a loss, but it will be years before anything ever happens to Zuma because of those spy tapes. It took seven years just to get them back. How long do you think it will take to ever put the President behind bars? If ever it gets to that. By the time something happens he will delay justice with another ‘leave to appeal’ and all sorts of tactics up until the charges and the trial are just harmless procedure.

Julius Malema is undoubtedly the rockstar of South African politics. But he was once prepared to die for Zuma, and when he tried to bring down Zuma he suffered his most humiliating defeat to date. The entire EFF exists today because of Zuma’s ability to retain office as president of the ANC despite the Youth League’s attempt to overthrow him. If ANCYL had succeeded we wouldn’t be having EFF today. In fact Zuma has outsmarted every challenger he has ever faced in his political career, Malema, Mbeki, Courts and most of all the DA’s legal challenges. In my view Hellen Zille has not even scratched Zuma because she is just not good enough a politician to bring down a one man Mafia like Zuma. The man is an MK trained guerrilla from an intelligence background for crying out loud, it will take more than the leadership of one uncharismatic neo-liberal with a few puppets to overthrow him…sorry about that, but its true if you think of it.

Mandela may indeed have been a better speaker, a better leader, a better head of state or even a better human being with better education and better at reading speeches and articulating his views BUT when it comes to realpolitik, the ‘politics of power’ and control-Jacob Zuma is a better politician by far.

A good leader is not necessarily a good politician. There are many good leaders in South Africa, highly educated South Africans whose moral integrity can never be questioned and remarkable people who are celebrated internationally not just in South Africa. But the truth is that most of them would either make terrible or powerless politicians - being a good politician is about doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and doing whatever it takes to generate, control and demonstrate power, and possess the ability to influence the state and shape popular discourse. And Zuma is brilliant in that. How else do you think a world renowned academic and a generally good leader like Mamphele Ramphele got only 1% of the vote? Only 1%! It’s because she is a great human being and a great leader but she is a dismal politician who brought herself more shame than glory by starting a party thinking she can survive politics or even unseat Zuma and the ANC.

Think of Mbeki. Those who have been in the audience of both Zuma and Mbeki understand my point about the difference between politicians and leaders. Mbeki would flood his listeners with quotes from global literature, philosophic juxtapositions and all sorts of politico-intellectual parables. He was a great leader. But Zuma has no time for that. Zuma dives in to the roots of the struggle and picks an intensely emotional song that has not been sung in public for years then sings it with unbelievable emotion and flood his audience with nostalgia and memories of the struggle days, and in so doing draw himself closer to them. That is what a great politician does, something that great leaders like Mbeki and Madiba usually failed do. Of course the Madiba jive had its own magic, it does not match the effect of Zuma’s singing and dancing.

You can say whatever you want about Zuma’s poor reading abilities and his not so inspirational speeches or the fact that he has generally depleted South Africa’s international reputation, but those are leadership deficiencies, maybe he is simply not the right leader for this country but he is still a great politician. Leadership is just one aspect of politics, and I dare say leadership is not the most important aspect of politics. If you have power you can rule over the leaders of man. Those who have power go beyond leading, they ‘control’. Exactly what Zuma does. So the most important part of politics is not who is leading but who has power and who has the political muscle to defeat political challenges by hook or crook; That is what realpolitik is about, and there is no South African president who has done that better than Zuma because none before him have faced as many challenges as he has. From courts to elective congress the man has always emerges victorious. Think about it. When Madonsela was reading her Nkandla findings didn’t you think for a minute that ‘this time Zuma will go down’? Well he did not. But, back to back to him and Madiba…

Firstly, if President Mandela had been accused of rape, his entire legacy would have crumbed and his name would have ranked lower than that of Tambo, Sisulu or even that of Joe Slovo and Chris Hani, but Jacob Zuma not only survived allegations of rape (allegations for which he was acquitted by a court of law) but he prevailed with the unwavering support of the ANC Women’s League and the Youth League. If Mandela had faced the same allegation, he may have secured just as much support but his (inter)national reputation as this moral, respectable, graceful statesman would have been damaged beyond repair. Public opinion would have condemned him from this morally superior ‘Reconciler-in-Chief’ to being ranked in the lower echelons of all the typical corrupt, chauvinistic immoral leaders. Yet Zuma survived it.

Secondly if Mandela’s name would have somehow come up in the ‘Arms Deal’ or if he had been found to have “unduly benefited from state funds” again his incorruptible nature for which he is reputed for would have been questioned to the point of losing any shred of credibility. Yet Jacob Zuma survived that without a scratch. Even when Shabbier Shaike was convicted Zuma survived and enjoyed unbelievable levels of public support from the poor who sympathized with him and saw him as a victim of the Mbeki onslaught.

Thirdly if ‘Gupta Gate’ had happened under Mandela’s watch his dignity would have shrunk in to oblivion as it became clear that the Guptas pay his bills. Yet Zuma survived the Gupta scandal unscathed. Like Zuma, President Mandela may have secured many people to take the fall for it but his reputation would have suffered a crushing blow.

You see, Zuma’s survival does not depend on good reputation, charisma, good fortune or genes of royalty and chieftaincy or anything like that, no -President Zuma knows how to adroitly play his political cards. That is why when asked if he is nervous about the much speculated disruptions of his State of the Nation Address (SONA) by the EFF, Zuma said "I have never been nervous in my life", he knows that his political card will be the Speaker of the House, Baleka Mbethe.

As my favourite author of all time, Nicolo Machiavelli puts, “he who relies less on fortune is established the strongest”. So Zuma's politics has not relied on fortune, he knows how to strategize and how to forge strong alliances with all the strongholds in the ANC Veterans’ League, ANC Women’s League, and ANC Youth league, the SACP, YCL, COSATU and the NEC. The man is in alliance with all the relevant bigwigs in South African politics. That’s why everyone who has tried to bring him down has been ruined, Mbeki, Vavi, Malema, to a lesser extent Motlanthe and the list goes on. Mandela’s list of casualties does not equal that of Zuma and rightly so because a long list of casualties is uncharacteristic of a good leader but it is definitely a defining characteristic of a good politician. And with all that Zuma is great politician. He may not be as good a leader like Mandela was but he is a brilliant politician.

My point: Zuma may not be a good president, he may not be a good symbolic head of state, he may not be citizen of academia, some people even accuse him of not being a good human being altogether, they say his matrimonial choices and polygamy are contemptible because they show less regard for women, some question his morals, and his remarks usually raise eyebrows; But those deficiencies are personal and leadership deficiencies. Even if he has those deficiencies he is still a good in the practice of politics.

I have my own reserved judgements about some of the things he has done, but the one thing we can’t take away from him is that it takes a great political strategist to rise from a rural boy with limited schooling to being a state president and an honorary Professor of international relations (at Peking University in Beijing) just like Zuma did. Again, of course, a great politician can still be a bad leader as much as a good leader can still be a bad politician; and the one reason behind this paradox is that politicking is NOT leading… If you think all I said means I support JZ, just know that I always choose leaders over politicians, and my own emotions take a second place to sober analysis of individuals and their approach to politics.

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