There is something akin to a lack of meeting of minds in our public discourse. It is probably an accumulation of incidents over the years that has led President Jacob Zuma to conclude that there is a deliberate campaign against him by people who fancy themselves as educated – a campaign to undermine and not listen to him. There is also, in this view, a concomitant "giving up" on the president by the aforementioned group of South Africans.
I am referring to a growing portion of the black middle class who increasingly feel that things are falling apart, there is no economic and political vision at the top and something needs to happen to restore a sense of direction. It is not a simplistic call for the replacement of Zuma by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. Many wonder what Motlanthe would do differently.
It is more like an angry outburst and a throwing of hands in the air. And the presidency, for its part, is taking cover in a sarcastic dismissal of these critics, labelling them racists, part of the neoliberal – or just liberal – offensive and whatever else. None of what the president or his spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, say shows a genuine interest in engaging critics or acknowledging any of the points they are making. Let us call it talking past each other.
I do not know whether it is just a passing Mangaung phase, or whether it will be with us for as long as Zuma remains president. Parts of the media are in danger of being so disillusioned with Zuma that they are closing their eyes and ears to him, regardless of what he is doing or saying, which is not what the media should be doing.
Recently, in the light of the economic crisis generated by the mining strikes, worsening unemployment and growing inequality, the president convened what he called a "presidential high-level dialogue" that included labour, business and government. They agreed on a multi-faceted, far-reaching package to try to improve the situation. The comprehensive details of the package were mostly not covered, except for the proposed salary freeze for senior government and executives in the private sector. This particular proposal caught attention because of the irony generated by the president making such a clarion call when he saw nothing wrong with forging ahead with the R240-million upgrade of his personal home.
It appears that some have written him off, never expecting him to say anything new or particularly interesting. And that is wrong, frankly, because it means we will fail to communicate some important messages.
There was much scepticism last week about Zuma's generous praise of former president Thabo Mbeki. Many questioned his sincerity; others said the speech lived up to his middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, which broadly means "he who laughs while he grinds". Few were willing to take Zuma at face value.
The president, in turn, has resorted to name-calling, labelling his middle-class detractors as "clever blacks". A few people said it looked as though educated people unnerved him. Zuma has made fun of educated people before, telling students in 2007 that an intellectual is a person who, when asked a question, must fetch his suitcase and open it to find the answer.
So his attitude appears to be to ignore those "clever blacks" and carry on with what he has to do. It is as if he has concluded that he really does not need them to win an election, either in the government or the ANC. This is reminiscent of Zimbabwe, where Zanu-PF has lost support in the urban areas over the past few years but has been kept afloat by the majority of rural voters.
At least ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe made an effort to reach out to a group of young black guys who call themselves the Midrand Group and are known for their sustained criticism of Zuma's leadership. Their understanding of the meeting with Mantashe is that he asked them to tone it down, which is something you should never expect from clever blacks.
Mantashe also convened a meeting with political analysts at which he sought to discuss their understanding of the ANC and its processes. The meeting was poorly attended, but at least it represented a genuine effort on the ANC's part.
I doubt that the attempt to ignore the president or entertain him only in as far as he is an object of ridicule will work. I am not about to support the South African Communist Party in KwaZulu-Natal's motion for a special law to protect the dignity of the president, but Zuma's critics have to show more maturity and a genuine attempt to understand him.
The string of cases he has lost in the courts, including one in which his decision-making was called legally irrational, do indicate that Zuma has a lot to do to convince us of why we should have more of the same for another seven years. He cannot hide behind sarcasm and contempt for South Africans who have opinions. We need to see more of the kind of ideas that came out of his economic-crisis indaba.