In the months leading up to the election of Jacob Zuma as head of state in 2009, there was a lot of concern about his ability to govern a modern economy and state. After his inauguration in May 2009, and after he had given what was a confidence-building inauguration address, the concern gave way to a sense of resignation. With the announcement of his cabinet and the appointment of Gill Marcus as reserve bank governor, even some of his most strident critics became hopeful that Zuma would take the country in the right direction. The resignation then gave way to a sense of cautious optimism. But by the time of the Mangaung conference in December last year, the cautious optimism had mutated into a state of despair about Zuma’s leadership qualities, or the lack thereof, as well as the state of the Republic. It was, therefore, with very strong feelings of vindication that there was the hope that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe would mount a serious challenge in Mangaung.
Two things are worth noting about the re-election of Zuma: first, it seems it is only the middle and chattering classes that were gutted by the outcome of the Mangaung conference. Second, and given the wide margin by which the president beat Motlanthe, it seems the mainstream media and the chattering classes are out of touch with the political desires of the African National Congress (ANC) rank and file.
A friend who, like me, dabbles in political risk analysis, told me recently that he no longer knows what to tell his clients because he is completely befuddled by the support Zuma enjoys in the ANC. For him it is a no-brainer that someone like Zuma should not be head of state, let alone ANC president. Does the re-election of Zuma as ANC president constitute evidence of the mindlessness of the ANC rank and file? Is it true that the middle and chattering classes, moved, supposedly, by the nobility of their spirit, something that the noble savages who support Zuma lack, are the only ones who are pessimistic about Zuma and his ability to lead?
While we should not pretend that the answers to these two questions are easy, it seems that part of the answer lies in the content of the media space and the function, as an echo-chamber, it performs for many who are middle class. It is my firm belief that to think that none among the poor and working class share the scepticism about Zuma is as foolish as the assumption that none among the chattering and middle classes view the president in a positive light. For me, the problem is that the voices of the poor, working class and women are largely conspicuous by their absence in the mainstream media. But what is even more worrying about our media space is the marginalisation of the voices of poor and working class women. The reality, therefore, is that media content and the logic that governs it are largely driven by the world view and the interests of those who are neither poor, working class nor working class female. It is because those of us who are middle class labour under the illusion that our interests, worldview and logic are universal that we will never understand why Zuma, with his failures and weaknesses, is so popular.
In addition, we suffer from another predilection – the belief that history is made only by powerful men. Unfortunately, this is a predilection that is shared by the poor, working class as well as the middle and chattering classes. As a result, we miss the larger point that the problem is much more the political system and less about which individual male is in power. This is why we have fallen into the trap of fetishizing every head of state since the advent of our democracy in 1994. While, to some degree, individual leaders matter, political and economic systems, structures and institutions matter even more. Even if Zuma proves to be a spectacular success during his second and, happily, last term for some, there is a limit to what he can do for us. Whether the dream of a better life for all South Africans becomes a reality or not, will depend on our own sense of agency, the strength of our institutions, the dominant logic in the economy and, of course, the quality of our party-political and civil society spaces. This means that we must concentrate much more on eandeavours that seek to change our political culture and system. We must bear in mind that different political systems produce different democratic outcomes. Therefore, the quality of our democratic experience, political parties and leadership will depend quite a lot on the quality of our institutions and political system. Therefore, what we need is a qualitatively different political and economic system.