Barring an act of the gods, Jacob Zuma will be South Africa's next president, inaugurated on 9 May.
His road to the Presidency will have been a long and very messy one. Despite the Battle Royal to get him to the Union Buildings, we have little idea of what kind of President Jacob Zuma will actually be? What we have to go on is both limited and not particularly inspiring; his less than spectacular record as an MEC in KwaZulu-Natal and even less noteworthy stint as Deputy President and chair of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) come to mind. In the battle for ideas, Zuma has hidden conveniently behind the ANC ‘collective', rarely, if ever, providing leadership on any of the big debates worth having. Where he has entered the fray, it has been clumsy and often unhelpful.
His recent comments about the role and place of the judiciary are a case in point. They should concern all those who believe in constitutional democracy and its most basic tenets. In the interview, Zuma says, amongst other things, ‘Because... you can have a judge of whatever level making a judgment (and) other judges turning it and saying it was wrong. (This) just tells you they are not necessarily close to God. And therefore we have to look at it in a democratic setting; how do you avoid that?' In the interview, he is also quoted as saying the Judicial Services Commission should review the role of the Constitutional Court. The statements indicate not only a carelessness of words but also a lack of understanding of the courts, the processes of appeal and review and the supremacy of the Constitutional Court. That Zuma seems to believe it is the role of the JSC to ‘review' the role of the Constitutional Court, is worrying.
Matthews Phosa leapt to Zuma's defence with the too-familiar retort- Zuma had been quoted out of context. For a President-in-waiting, the comments indicated an unfortunate lapse of judgment and sent out the wrong message about Zuma's commitment to Constutional values. The Constitutional Court has been a progressive defender of socio-economic rights and a proven bulwark against abuses of power and process. That judges should be accountable, is entirely correct. If Zuma had preferred to be more nuanced and thoughtful, he would have pointed to the legislation in place seeking to ensure greater judicial accountability. Such legislation has been the result of long and difficult negotiations between the judiciary and the executive.
The comments also indicate a crudeness of interpretation which has become virtually the order of the day within our body politic. Not a day goes by when a politician is not putting his or her foot in it; from Zuma's own comments or Julius Malema's inanities to Helen Zille's absurdly inappropriate campaign song, ‘koekie-loekie', pandering to the lowest common denominator has become our chosen means of political communication more often than not during this campaign. The post-election period will hopefully provide some space for reflection, particularly within the ANC. Our institutions have been damaged, divided and bruised in the battle to propel Jacob Zuma to the Union Buildings.
For them to survive, we will need active citizens and strong political leadership. Zuma has been touted as a bridge-builder and reconciler. South Africa needs those skills now, more than ever. For his ascent to the Presidency has come at a great cost, creating deep divisions and a crassness which has no place in a society which values democratic discourse. Zuma will need to spend every bit of his energy over the next 5 years proving his critics wrong and proving his commitment to Constitutional values. But critically, South Africa also requires much of the ‘thinking', intellectual leadership which those within the ANC and the alliance speak of now, with such scorn. The complexities of the world mean we can afford to be neither parochial nor short-sighted about the value which thinkers play within a democracy, nor the value of those who possess the skill and intellectual capital- of whatever race- to change our current socio-economic trajectory. Some have said that the ANC has all but given up on the middle classes and the intelligentsia. That would be a mistake. Zuma will need the goodwill of the middle classes and the intelligentsia and he will need to run a smart, inclusive Presidency, if he is to succeed.
We find ourselves in a far from ideal situation today, but this country, maybe more than many others, has a way of remaking itself and of adapting to challenges, even if it means a bit of bumbling long the way. It's a country of people who know how to ‘keep on, keeping on'. But despite this resilience, there are two caveats for the Zuma presidency; the next generation of voters, unencumbered by the memory of ‘liberation politics' might be less patient with a fumbling Zuma presidency come 2014 and indeed, the memory of Mbeki's ousting at Polokwane should probably always remain fresh in Zuma's mind.
Zuma has stopped at nothing to secure the Presidency which has set an uneasy precedent. We, the people must hold him and his cabinet to account for what they say and do in our name. That is the power of the ballot which we embraced in 1994. The hard work for all of us starts today as we begin to craft a vision for the beloved country; again, with the odds stacked somewhat against us.
By Judith February. This article first appeared in the Cape Times, Thursday, April 23, 2009.