Business Report, Johannesburg, October 2, 2006

Does Zuma's popularity automatically make him a bad choice?

By Michael Hamlyn

The main event in parliament recently did not happen in the parliamentary precinct, but in Pietermaritzburg. When the judge struck the corruption case against Jacob Zuma from the roll, everyone in parliament, MPs and observers, was agog as to what this might mean for the presidential succession, and it turned people's minds to what kind of president Zuma would make.

In particular, the question was: what effect would his presidency have on the economy?

Opinions, naturally, varied. The ANC rejoiced at the burden being lifted from Zuma and his family. A number of quite sensible ANC members reckoned that Zuma had never shown signs of being economically inclined to the left. Indeed, the chair of one of the economic committees pointed to Zuma's speech at Cosatu's congress, where he firmly reiterated the orthodox government line.

Even though he was addressing a notably socialist-inclined audience, he did not tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. He said: "Our well-thought-out economic policies in the ANC are very clear on the direction of our economy."

He added: "I must emphasise that no individual in the ANC develops his or her own policies on any issue of national importance. These policies are crafted, adopted and implemented collectively by the movement as a whole, in line with our history and traditions."

Yes, but, said a prominent opposition figure, if he comes to power he will be a disaster. He will be beholden to the left-wing constituency.

Not necessarily. To come to power, he will need a great deal more support than that provided by the SA Communist Party and Cosatu. And since the support from other groups will come later, when it will be sorely needed, he will be equally beholden to them, if not more so. And if he is drafted into office on an overwhelming tide of support, he will not be beholden to any constituency.

Senior figures in the Democratic Alliance still think he will not make it to the president's chair. "He has no morality. He has no intellectual capacity," said one. Ryan Coetzee, in a member's statement in the national assembly, said: "[South Africa] does not need Jacob Zuma, whose populism - and popularity - is not based on a coherent, or indeed even discernable, vision or policy platform, but on a crude anti-Mbeki-ism."

An MP of another opposition party granted that he might come to office with no left-wing baggage, but worried what the effect of his ascent would mean internationally.

He pointed to Zuma's acquittal on the rape charge, which, although clearing him, did not do anything for his reputation or perceptions of his intellectual prowess.

True, Zuma is uneducated, but he taught himself. And he taught himself well. Might he not be just as adept when it comes to learning what is necessary in high office?

Ronald Reagan was not an intellectual, but he surrounded himself with clever men. Bill Clinton scored low for morality, but that did not make him any less popular, except with Wasp polemicists. In any case Lyndon Johnson was not a master of morality; nor was John Kennedy.

And like Clinton, Zuma has the ability to make himself liked. People enjoy his company.

He would, certainly, be populist. But would that be a bad thing?

Mandela was not a populist, true. He was a grandee. Mbeki is more intellectual, more poetic. Zuma would certainly be a change from that.

As for the world's view of him, well, people will get over it. It is common that the most unlikely leaders grow in office to fill enormous shoes left under the desk. Harry Truman was one such when he took office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

My dictionary defines populist as the adherent of a political party seeking to represent the whole of the people. I could stand that.


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