Zuma can lead despite flaws

IT NEVER rains but it pours. That's how it must have felt for President Jacob Zuma over the last two weeks.

We took advantage of his personal indiscretion to launch every missile possible at him. By the time he delivered his State of the Nation Address almost every clown, editor, pseudo-analyst, and cartoonist had extracted their pound of flesh.

Like vultures we circled to finish off what we consider an easy prey. Attention is diverted from our failure to be part of the solution in the alleviation of poverty and reduction of economic inequalities, increasing life opportunities for all. Throwing stones is the easy part.

To be sure, the avalanche of criticism was an amalgam of concern, mischief, vengefulness and outright opportunism.

Even those who catapulted him to the presidency raised their concern. They expressed their outrage not to condemn but to correct. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi profoundly captures the sentiments harboured by this group. Responding to Zuma's State of the Nation Address, he boldly stated: "I respect the president because behind him lies the will of the democratic mandate of 66percent of the South African people. I could not hinder or oppose without opposing the South African people . I cannot afford to see the president and his government fail. If they fail, my own country fails."

Others, and especially the most strident, were driven by a vengeful spirit. The revelations provided space for regrouping of forces that tried to thwart his ascendancy to the presidency.

The ferocity of the attack is meant to achieve a number of interrelated issues.

The first was to drown out the results of recent surveys on the president's performance. Asked to rate him after his first months of office on a scale from zero to 10, Zuma's ranking jumped from 6,1 to 7,6, in an Ipso Markinor survey of 3500 South Africans carried out between October and November.

Using last year's April general election as a starting point, the TNS Research survey showed Zuma's approval level rose from 40percent at the beginning of 2009 to 52percent at the time of the election and stepped up to 58percent in November in the same year.

This was despite their serious reservations concerning Zuma's practice of polygamy, leading Neil Higgs (TNS) to argue that "it is clear that many ordinary citizens separate their approval of Zuma as president from his private life".

Zuma's perennial detractors have been successful in drowning out this message.

Be that as it may, Zuma's apology however indicates that he is well aware of and sensitive to people's sensibilities regarding how he conducts his private space.

Second, the brouhaha was also meant to put a damper on the State of the Nation Address. They seem to have succeeded. They attributed the president's supposedly lacklustre performance to the fact that he was sufficiently intimidated by the time he delivered his address. His response suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

Third, we sought to cast doubt on his capacity to lead. While his indiscretions cannot and should not be excused, it is mischievous to link this to his capacity to lead. Former presidents Bill Clinton, Thabo Mbeki and other world leaders were not paragons of virtue. But none sought to conflate their private failures with their (cap)ability to hold public office.

Typical of the hypocrisy we have come to, we have turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of his fiercest critics. The difference between the president and his detractors is that he acknowledges his weaknesses and mistakes.

Contrast this with Cope deputy president Mbhazima Shilowa. He was forced to take a paternity test after refusing to accept responsibility of having fathered a child.

Before undergoing the Damascene experience, the former bishop and Cope leader in Parliament, Mvume Dandala, is known to have had his own share of indiscretion.

While we are quick to lecture Zuma about morality, we were deafeningly silent when the indiscretions of Mbeki were made public. Indeed, none of the current crop of champions of morality dared to suggest that he should step down. If anything, they jumped to the rescue of the puppet master.

If moral uprightness were a criterion for public office, monks and priests would be running the world.

Of all people, Dandala should know. And white liberals would be less keen to parade Mamphela Ramphele as a paragon of virtue.

It is common cause that she had a child with a man who was married. To her credit, she has restrained herself from entering this slippery moral terrain.

The hypocrisy regarding Zuma is understandable. He is the worst nightmare to many who have been infected by the virus of white racism.

He wears leopard skins, is a traditionalist, is a polygamist, and a Zulu who does not apologise about it. The brainwashed among us are embarrassed on his behalf.

Lastly, the masses might be angry with Zuma but they do not confuse this with his ability to lead. They do not identify with those who harbour a passionate and ideological dislike for Zuma.

It is the same masses that supported him when all sorts of abuse was thrown at him. At the time the privileged among us were silent when state organs were used to violate his constitutional rights. They are aware that these same forces have emerged from the crevices where they have taken refuge.

l The writer is a political commentator