Simply listening to his people won't help, President Zuma must lead us, writes Nickolaus Bauer.

In the run-up to Thursday’s State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma has encouraged South Africans to engage with him on social networks.

Last week, Zuma’s office sent out a request to all citizens, encouraging them to send their suggestions to the president’s Twitter handle: @SAPresident.

Far from being received as a cynical public relations exercise, it has been seized upon by citizens eager to take advantage of this opportunity to make themselves heard.

Submissions have been heartfelt, with South Africans pleading with their president to take action where they feel it is most needed.

@SAPresident please set realistic targets for job creation, start initiating proper programmes to empower and skill our youth,” urges @tertuis23 on twitter.

@AniqTheGreat underlines the importance of education: “@SAPresident Mr presdent please organise building of at least 9 universities that are 100% bill free. #ThankMeLater.”

Besides suggestions, there is a smattering of opinion in the mix, too.
@AlexanderJackie opines: “@SAPresident we need to sort out the public transport before we creating new jobs - People drive like pigs.”

Some tweets to the president have flirted with libel, while others have been downright prejudicial: “@SAPresident look after pure South Africans,” reads one such tweet. “Stop the inflood from neigbouring countries, it will create employment and lessen crime!”

Some Twitter users even took the time to compliment Zuma, although they were quick to follow up with requests of their own.

@SAPresident hi Mr. Zuma. Kudos on a job well done.need to address the problem with litter & dirt in pmb.spoiling our beautiful city. Thanks,” tweets @RaieesaC.

Humour has also inevitably found its way onto the president’s twitter feed, with one of the most memorable, if darkly amusing, tweets coming from @gargunzola: “Dear @SAPresident. Seeing we are following the Chinese economic model does that mean I can have slaves again?”

On Tuesday, Zuma showed his appreciation and asked people to continue tweeting him.

@SAPresident Thanks for your contributions to the SONA, I have already identified some issues that I agree need immediate attention. Keep them coming,” Zuma tweeted.

I applaud our president for offering his people this line of communication—even if it is somewhat unlikely that the man himself is staring at his Blackberry’s screen and jotting down his citizens’ thoughts.

But it does show that he’s at least trying to appear accessible and available to South Africa’s socially networked population.

To me, it’s vintage Zuma. Wherever our president goes he is warmly accepted and listens intently to his people—assuring them their problems have been noted and their suggestions heard.

For the most part, it works for him. Watching him interact with people leaves one with the sense his audiences are comforted by the fact that their leader listens to them—and even responds.

But, I have to ask President Zuma: When will the talking stop?

Mr President, you are renowned for your ability to placate antagonists, and be all things to all people.

Be it remaining cordial with Helen Zille or having a braai with a group of prominent Afrikaners—you manage to keep on smiling and talking.

Could you simply find it in yourself to not just try to be everyone’s pal, but rather actually lead us?

It was the famous journalist Herbert Bayard Swope who once wrote: “As a leader, you must be ready to make unpopular decisions, and no doubt, turn a few people away from you sometimes.”

I appreciate your ability to engage with the diverse population you serve, but stop placating us with words, and reassure us with action.

Listen to us, but—more importantly—lead us.

For news and multimedia on the State of the Nation address visit our special report.

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