What does world think of Zuma?
Under him, South Africa lost clout
SINCE the launch of this Sowetan leadership debate, South Africans and foreign observers alike have been waiting eagerly for us to reflect on "Zuma and the world".
When contemplating such an important matter, a question springs to mind: has South Africa's image in the world improved since Jacob Zuma became president?
We can respond to this question on the basis of the influence of Zuma's personality in international affairs, South Africa's weight in intergovernmental bodies and the articulation of our country's foreign policy.
In international affairs, events matter. Heads of state rely on the weight of their personality - intellect and stature - to persuade gatherings to support their national positions. What foreigners think of our president is important.
Whenever Nelson Mandela appeared in international forums, most people felt fortunate to be in the presence of our global icon.
Thabo Mbeki skilfully marketed an Africanist image on the global stage. His initiatives are well-known - from the establishment of the African Union to conceptualisation of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism.
What, then, do foreigners think of Jacob Zuma?
Attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) for the first time as president of our great nation, Zuma was asked by the globally respected journalist and author Fareed Zakaria if he loved all his wives equally. Zuma giggled and answered: "Absolutely!"
"There are many people in this audience who would find it a challenge to be married to one person," Zakaria replied.
Our president proceeded to persuade Zakaria and the WEF to respect Zulu culture - which, in Zuma's view encourages polygamy.
TheWEF is a platform for world leaders and entrepreneurs to share ideas and showcase economicopportunities offered by their countries and companies.
It is not a cultural showgroundfor70-year-old polygamists to display their skill at accumulating wives. So millions of South Africans felt embarrassed by questions about wives and equal love.
Somemightdismiss Zakaria as a silly and mischievous journalist. But what do 21st century leaders probably think whenever they are to meet Zuma?
Imagine Barack Obama discussing details about climate change. Do you think Zuma would comprehend the dynamics of ultraviolet radiation harmful to the ozone layer?
It also would be interesting to know what the young and intellectually gifted David Cameroon of the UK honestly thinks when engaged in a discussion with Zuma.
An important area of further observation is that of intergovernmental organisations. Here too we can gauge the influence of our country in foreign affairs.
An outstanding achievement by Zuma is perhaps his success in pleading for South Africa's inclusion as a member of what used to be called "Bric" countries, and is now called Brics.
Last month in London, Goldman Sachs asset manager Jim O'Neill - the man who coined the term "Bric" - was blunt in an interview: "It's just wrong. South Africa doesn't belong in Brics."
O'Neill's argument is that South Africa's economy is too small, and thereby weakens Brics.
The fact that our growth estimate in the current financial year has been revised downwards from 3.2% to 2.7%, while the rest of the Brics members are forecast to grow by an average of about 7% raises doubts in O'Neill's mind.
It would be easy to dismiss O'Neill and to praise Zuma as the praiseworthy champion who made it possible for our country to punch above its weight.
The trouble, though, is that Zuma has yet to adduce facts to prove how ordinary South Africans will benefit from our country's membership in Bric.
Intellectually - and indeed educationally - the whole world knows that Zuma is nowhere near the giants who lead Brics countries.
The most embarrassing among Zuma's foreign policy blunders was when he instructed our ambassador to the UN to vote in support of Resolution 1973, authorising Nato forces to invade Libya.
When Nato relied on Zuma's vote to bombard Libya, he ran around crying foul that Nato was deviating from what South Africa voted for. Indeed, Zuma's complaints changed nothing; Libya was bombed beyond recognition.
In Africa, where we used to enjoy hegemony, even the smallest of states no longer take South Africa seriously.
The recent failure to secure the chairmanship of the AU is proof that South Africa has lost influence. To this day, ordinary citizens of our country do not know why, in the first place, Zuma tried to make Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chairwoman of the AU.
To find evidence of Zuma's influence in intergovernmental organisations, one would need to be an extraordinary researcher, or an exceedingly inventive marketing agent.
Criticallyanalysed, Zuma's blunders in foreign affairs emanate from his failure to craft and articulate a coherent foreign policy.
Other than attending international gatherings, there is no evidence that Zuma is capable of weaving a foreign policy that can strategically position South Africa in our fast-changing world.
That global politics and economicsarebecoming more complex is a reality that escapes only the unversed.
To discern the implications of the economic chaos in the Eurozone for Africa requires technical skill Zuma does not possess.
Making sense of the systemic intricacies that have facilitated the birth of the virtual country the American economist Niall Ferguson calls "Chimerica" is an exercise far beyond the imagination of old-fashion leaders.
The unfolding political mayhem in North Africa and the Middle East is reconfiguring international relations in a manner that has thrown even the best among our foreign policy wonks into confusion.
In response to all this, Zuma's International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, admittedly not the best of diplomats, introduced a thing called "foreign policy of Ubuntu".
Whatever that means.
- Mashele is CEO of the Forum for Public Dialogue. He lectures politics at the University of Pretoria, and is a member of the Midrand Group.He is the author of The death of our society