Thursday, February 11, 2010



11 February 2010
Business Day

THERE has been much discussion in the media over the past few weeks about President Jacob Zuma 's extramarital affairs, and specifically whether the revelation that he fathered a child with a woman who was not one of his wives has made him politically vulnerable.

Initially, the consensus seemed to be that while the vast majority of SA's generally socially conservative population might strongly disapprove, staunch supporters of the ruling party would stand by their man, so to speak, just as they did when he was facing corruption charges.

Now that assessment seems to have changed, partly due to the spontaneous eruption of popular anguish reflected in the letters pages of newspapers and the opinions expressed by callers to radio talk shows, but also because of the icy silence that has followed the predictable press releases churned out at first by the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners.

There is no doubt that many professed Zuma supporters - even some who insisted they were prepared to kill for him a few short months ago - have been left feeling betrayed and disillusioned by the realisation that their hero does not practise what he preaches. But is that the same as political vulnerability, and, if so, what are the implications for the country?

The fact is that while "Babygate" has undoubtedly undermined Zuma's credibility as a leader, he was politically vulnerable long before he became a father for the 20th time. In truth, he has never not been vulnerable; support that has often appeared overwhelming has always been questionable because its foundations are flawed.

Some in the ruling alliance supported Zuma solely because he is not Thabo Mbeki; others because they believed he would be the quickest route to the imposition of socialism in SA; a good number in the hope that he would be their ticket to the good life via lucrative appointments or state tenders; yet others simply because they share his Zulu culture.

The trouble with a support base from which principle is excluded is that it is bound to be fickle. Conflicting agendas are inevitable, and try as he might to please them all - and Zuma has tried, often by simply keeping silent when committing himself one way or the other might offend an influential lobby group - it is impossible. When one or more of these factions concludes that Zuma is never going to pull in their direction, there is a danger that they will dump him. Recent conflict between the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party indicates that this is already on the cards.

Babygate has become a lightning rod through which mounting frustration within the alliance is being discharged. The question that is yet to be answered is how Zuma will react. He changed his tune quite rapidly when it became clear that insisting it was nobody else's business wasn't washing with the ANC, let alone the general public. But it is doubtful that an apology is going to be enough.

Zuma's best bet to extricate himself from the corner he has painted himself into is to build a new support base that unites South Africans behind a common goal that supercedes narrow, self-serving factional demands. That goal is already articulated by the ruling party's slogan - a better life for all - and there is no better time or place to start turning it into reality than this evening's state of the nation address.

Trying to be everything to every man and woman in the republic has turned Zuma into a prevaricator. A number of promises were made before last year's election and a vast amount of hot air was emitted in the subsequent months on how they should be fulfilled. Yet there has been precious little actually done, and where there has been decisive action it has all too often been ill-considered and badly implemented.

A case in point is the "shoot to kill" response to stubbornly high levels of crime, which is already encouraging a culture of impunity in the police force and making the public as fearful of their supposed protectors as they are of the criminals. Another is the proposed national health insurance scheme, which is clearly driven more by ideology than practicality.

Most of the "priority" issues the ANC highlighted during its successful election campaign - unemployment, education, health, rural development and land reform, and crime and corruption - have gone backwards in the intervening months, even as they were being "workshopped" to death.

The time for talking is over; now is the time for decisions to be made and implemented. It is time for Zuma to make his choices and lead. Everyone.

'Babygate' may give the impression that Zuma is now vulnerable. But the fact is he has always been vulnerable.