Amid the adulations and ululations that reverberated in the hallowed chambre of Parliament during the State of the Nation address last Thursday, my ears pursued the young imbongi (praise poet) who ushered in President Jacob Zuma and his entourage. His command of isiZulu was breathtaking.
As he heaped layer upon layer of praise on the shining head of the president, I shifted in my seat to stay alert to the paradoxical, the ironic and the subversive hidden in the subtext. I listened with my gut so I would grasp the meanings inside, beside, behind, in front and between the words &bdash; words said, words gestured, words suggested, words that slipped through, and the words felt but left unsaid.
I do not seek to steal the thunder of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who were clearly on to something on the night and have been ever since they coined #PayBackTheMoney. I do not wish to rob madam speaker and the chairperson of the National Council of the Provinces (NCOP) of their unique contribution to the unseemly scenes that entertained the nation for what was supposed to be the first hour of the address.
I do not intend to pickpocket Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota and his colleagues of their moment of glory, nicely taken. Nor do I wish to diminish the dramatic value of the actions of the police and protesters in and around the parliamentary precinct earlier in the day. To the colourful dresses and shiny suits that came strutting into the chambers, I say my wow! add my ooh! and doff my hat.
And yet the bloke who stole the show was the unnamed imbongi. The only thing we were told about him is that he hails from KwaZulu-Natal.
In the spontaneity and dynamism of the spoken word of the imbongi, the line that lies between praising lavishly and praising to death is often a disguised and thin one. The character of the leader is put under intense scrutiny. Under the cover of the cacophony of worship and supplication designed to massage the obese egos of the powerful, their sidekicks and their hangers-on, the poet gently plies his trade of invocation, evocation, provocation and agitation.
The crowd went crazy with excitement when the poet uttered two statements in quick succession, the first seemingly addressed only to the audience and then the second directly addressing Zuma, saying, “Uboholi ka bu fundelwa MaAfrika/ Ubuholi bu se gazini ku wena Msholozi’ [Fellow Africans, (true) leadership is not a matter of school or education/ Leadership is in your blood]”.
At that point, I swear that I saw a shy smile squeezing through the hard-pressed lips of Zuma. I swear I saw his chest visibly swell up. In front of him walked the chairperson of the NCOP, Thandi Modise, and the speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete. Under the spell of the soft rain of the poet’s words, sprinkled like confetti on the presidential entourage, Modise and Mbete smiled away.
A promising praise poet is one who, with a turn of phrase, can simultaneously elicit a smile in the face of the subject of his or her praise while at the same time planting seeds of doubt in the minds of many.
To achieve this double-edged outcome, poets employ a variety of rhetorical devices. Chief among these are the tools of linguistic overstatement and dramatic exaggeration.
The praise singer achieved this the moment he invited his audience to consider that “leadership is not a matter of school or education” and the suspicious vehemence with which he declared, “leadership flows in your blood, Msholozi”.
In the middle of January this year, while speaking at a Zuma Foundation function in Durban, Zuma complained that he might be disrespected because he “never went to school”.
Since 2007, I have not been aware of any sustained attack on Zuma or his leadership solely because he “never went to school”. But he has lambasted those who seem to think that “we cannot have a man who never went to school running a country. We must rubbish him 24/7”.
Au contraire, South Africans have long made peace with the fact that Zuma “never went to school”, at the same time recognising his considerable talents, his experience, his struggle credentials, his admirable effort at educating himself and his political astuteness. Many have given him the benefit of the doubt.
But here is the thing: South Africans have had to pay (literally and metaphorically) again and again for his frailties and his decisions.
At issue, for a long time, has been the suspicion that Zuma might not be worthy of the office of the president. The line of questioning has had everything to do with perceptions of lack of integrity associated with, among other things, renovations to his home in Nkandla using public funds, Guptagate (when the Gupta family’s jet carrying wedding guests landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base) and other matters of ethics.
The recent replacement of one finance minister with two more in four days, as well as the dire economic and confidence consequences that followed, has led to a resuscitation of the decade-old doubts about Zuma’s worthiness to hold office.
Through the thorny forest of the rape charges in 2006, of which he was duly acquitted, up to the ecstatic mountaintop of his 2007 election to the ANC presidency in Polokwane, down through the valley of his racketeering and corruption charges, the pursuit of which was abandoned by the National Prosecuting Authority in April 2008, doubts about his worthiness to hold the high office have lingered.
Even the tremendous groundswell of popular support, which reached its pinnacle in the years 2007 and 2008, and since then periodically ratcheted up to required levels whenever there is an election to be won or “enemies” of the president to be warded off, have not managed to destroy the seeds of doubt planted as early 2005. Not even Zuma’s remarkable facility with public gesture, music and dance has been able to drown out the noises of the growing numbers of doubting Thomases.
On December 4 2009, the Mail & Guardian’s Mandy Rossouw broke the Nkandla story. Its cost was then estimated at R65-million. Six years and R246-million later, Nkandla is yet another reason for many to doubt whether Zuma is worthy of the office of the president.
In light of the above, the imbongi’s invitation for the nation to consider that “leadership is not a matter of school or education” is highly problematic and perhaps deliberately provocative. In part, it is problematic because it is beside the point.
It is an irrelevance that is nevertheless relevant. Lack of education has not been central to the recent disastrous decisions of the president, or is the imbongi implying that it might have been?
You can bet the imbongi had a firm grasp of the list of grievances South Africans have against Zuma as well as their nuances. He probably had an idea of what the EFF’s Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu were going to do on the day of the address. But there is a total absence of any mention in the imbongi’s oration of the likes of Nkandla, Guptagate, Marikana (where police used lethal force against miners), Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, or Nhlanhla Nene, the finance minister fired by Zuma.
Was the imbongi the only South African who is ignorant of what ANC stalwart Ben Turok has recently described as “the endless crises around the president”?
Some of the strategic silences of the imbongi speak much louder than the sweet words he belts out. Through his silences he invites his audience to the street of doubt and a festival of scrutiny of the conduct of the president.
The question that emerges from the “endless crises around the president” is: when does a sitting president, such as ours, cease to be worthy of the office? The question we pose is, in the first place, a moral rather than a legal question.
A president does not cease to be worthy of the office merely because of incompetence or allegations thereof. Incompetence is costly, but with quick and appropriate action, it can be remedied. Though life-long learning is the way to go these days, the president certainly does not cease to be worthy of office merely because he “never went to school”.
But the president might be considered unworthy of office if he shows disdain for the people he leads, contempt for the law of the land and if he abuses or violates public trust. He makes himself vulnerable to charges of being unworthy of office if he seems to run out of the precious character trait called dignity, clearly identified in section 81 paragraph two of the Constitution as the stuff with which a president is to provide executive leadership in the interest of national unity.
Where does a president go to acquire the dignity necessary for the successful execution of his job? What are the ingredients that constitute dignity? Once lost, how can dignity be regained? Does dignity, like leadership, simply reside in his blood, his name, his voice, his clan or his say-so? Could it be that the imbongi’s seeming assurance to Zuma is also a barbed arrow laced with slow poison, aimed at the very presidency of the president?
Many will question the worthiness of a president bereft of the necessary dignity for public office. But, for several reasons, such a president may continue to reign. It is cold comfort, but the world has many such presidents. In such cases, it seems to me, the citizens and their president enter into a crucial relationship of codependency with their dignity-less president. At no other time have South Africans so desperately needed their president to inspire confidence, to chart a plan of growth, to lead by example and to embody their hopes.
In a sick kind of way, the president and the citizens both need and perhaps deserve one another in the conduct of this increasingly abusive relationship. Until Jesus comes!
Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko.