Friday, December 21, 2007

Zuma’s choices and our own

THE most puzzling thing about Thabo Mbeki is how someone purported to be an intellectual could be so oblivious to the one historical principle that has proven true over and over again. I used to go around reciting it as a little boy in Ginsberg, having read it in one of Steve Biko’s essays:

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Mbeki was not yet an oppressive tyrant, but with the passage of time he could easily have transmogrified into one. The signs were there for all to see. But I would not be surprised if Mbeki still insists that African National Congress (ANC) members suffer from false consciousness. I can see that this is all a machination of racists, liberals and coconut intellectuals. The man’s ability to deny is unparalleled. He is truly tiresome in that way.

Enough about Mbeki. He is a man of the past. Our gaze must turn to Jacob Zuma. In my forthcoming book, To The Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa, I argue that Zuma is likely to be a transitional figure in at least three ways.

The first scenario would not be so much of a scenario were it not for its social consequences. I have always argued that we should have found a political solution to this matter. Mbeki took us to the brink with Zuma and was ultimately left with egg on his face. He might be tempted to retaliate through the legal process but that would simply heighten the tension .

We may look to our most recent history for precedent. The state could do what it did with Adriaan Vlok — who received a suspended sentence for apartheid atrocities. Zuma could also be pardoned by an incoming president — the way Gerald Ford did with Richard Nixon during Watergate. The quid pro quo would be that Zuma should exit gracefully into the sunset.

The second scenario would be one in which Zuma is acquitted. There is little a man can do about his age. Barring an early election, Zuma would be 71 at the end of his first term, and 76 at the end of the second term. The same goes for all the members of the so-called Class of 1942.
I cannot imagine the ANC electing another 70-something to lead it in 2012 or in 2017. Granted, Nelson Mandela was in his 70s when he was president and other countries have had old and successful presidents, such as Ronald Reagan. The difference is that many of our “old timers”, Zuma included, come from a culture of exile, secrecy, hierarchy and quaint notions of old-fashioned solidarity. And yet the world we live in demands openness, accountability and horizontal networks.

On a cautionary note, Zuma should avoid the triumphalism that goes with what the great American presidential scholar and adviser Richard Neustadt called “newness”. “Everywhere there is a sense of a page turning, a new chapter in the country’s history, a new chance too. And with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, ‘they’ couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t but ‘we’ will. We can because we won.” This can be dangerous, particularly in the sensitive and closely watched areas of economic and foreign policy.

The third scenario is my most preferred. This would be for Zuma to give way to someone such as Kgalema Motlanthe or Tokyo Sexwale. I would prefer Sexwale over Motlanthe because the latter is more of an organisational leader and the former more of a public leader. Either one of them would give us a breather. We need it, desperately.

Zuma won on the strength of a deep and widely-held anti-Mbeki sentiment in the ANC, but now that he has won he will no longer have Mbeki as his foil and his anti-type. All eyes will now be on him. He saved us from the brink of tyranny but will he have the presence of mind to save us from himself?

Surely he would also agree that there would be too much “stuff” around him and that would distract him from being an effective leader of his country. And yet, as party leader and elder statesman he could still play an active and influential role in guiding the ANC. The country would be forever grateful to him, and history would remember him well for such a statesmanlike act.

Whether Zuma chooses to go down in ignominy in a jail cell somewhere; or to bear the burden of the state presidency; or to be remembered as a party leader and statesman who pulled his country from the brink of tyranny, is entirely his gambit. The challenge for us and future generations is different. It goes beyond Mbeki and Zuma to what Neustadt said: “Choose your president carefully because at the end of the day no one can save him from himself (or herself as the case may be).”

n Mangcu is executive chairman of the Platform for Public Deliberation and author of the forthcoming book To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, January 2008)

Source: Business day

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