Shift flawed leader aside or suffer the consequences

WHEN ANC members, supporters and sympathisers voted for Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC - and later of the country - they knew his private life and personal finances were shambolic.

WHEN ANC members, supporters and sympathisers voted for Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC - and later of the country - they knew his private life and personal finances were shambolic.

Knowing this, at the party's Polokwane national conference in 2007 many rank-and-file members voted for Zuma because they believed that only he could unseat - and had the daring to stand against - former ANC leader Thabo Mbeki.

Secondly, Zuma promised that under his leadership the ANC collective would deliver jobs, efficient public services and a quality democracy.

Many others of course voted for him because they believed he would defend their "interests" - whether it was giving them government positions, tenders or favouring their partisan policies.

Nevertheless, in the 2009 national elections, many ordinary supporters argued they voted for the ANC as a liberation movement rather than for Zuma the individual. They argued Zuma's flawed judgements in his private life did not really matter as long as the ANC "collective" government he led delivered to the poor.

The argument went that Zuma, although an ANC leader, would submit himself as "a loyal cadre" to the collective values, traditions and policies of the "movement".

Clearly, the reality is not so straightforward.

The inherent danger of electing someone with such a colourful private life is that sooner or later the excesses of his private life will so dominate public life that it paralyses government itself.

This moment has arrived. The floodgates have been opened. It will be difficult to close them now.

The recent "babygate" revelations of his baby with Sonono Khoza, daughter of soccer tycoon Irvin Khoza, has overshadowed everything else.

It is unlikely that minds across the country will be concentrated on tomorrow's State of the Nation Address in which he will set out the government's priorities for the year.

The pattern has been set. Every new revelation that might emerge from his private life will dominate the headlines and public debate. It will distract from his public office.

In such circumstances effective governing cannot take place. Valuable public resources, time and energy - which should be concentrated on the delivery of public services - will be spent on dousing dry veld-like fires springing from his private life.

In fact, the tumultuous private life of Zuma the "individual" may now tarnish the credibility of the collective ANC movement and government also.

This is clearly contrary to those who think that Zuma's "individual" private conduct will be subsumed by the "collective". It is in fact the other way round.

ANC members who voted for Zuma on the basis that he would bring effective government are now starting to worry that his private conduct may be such that it will undermine effective government throughout his term.

Some far-sighted ANC leaders are waking up to this: this is why many persuaded Zuma to apologise even after the party's spin doctors insisted his private sex life had nothing to do with his public life.

Public disgust about Zuma's private life might easily translate into rejection of the ANC.

The ANC leadership must soberly consider whether it is not better to get a new leader now, while it is still early days - let Zuma retain the ANC presidency, but move someone else into the nation's presidency - or suffer the electora l consequences.

lGumede is co-author of the recently published The Poverty of Ideas