Mail & Guardian

What history will tell us about our leaders

21 Nov 2012 07:31 | Mpho Moshe Matheolane

What will history tell us about President Jacob Zuma as a leader? (Gallo)

What will history tell us about President Jacob Zuma as a leader? (Gallo)

I recall somebody saying the other day – I think it was at the book launch of Adriaan Basson's Zuma Exposed – that of the democratically elected presidents of post-apartheid South Africa; Nelson Mandela was about reconciliation, Thabo Mbeki about renaissance and Jacob Zuma – all about dodging prison. The crowd laughed at the humorous statement but I suspect that deep down every person at there felt the equally stinging pinch of it.

It got me thinking about how, to the people at the launch, knowledge is a very highly ranked commodity. Knowledge is, after all, the aim and result of the book that Basson has painstakingly managed to put together to illustrate the realities of our times, particularly those that we have been unfortunate enough to share with the full presence of Zuma. Introducing Basson was TV host and journalist Justice Malala, who made it a point to clarify to the audience in attendance, by way of a history lesson, the difference between the ANC we have today and the ANC when it was started in 1912 as the South African Natives National Congress.

The whole thing reminded me of an article I did a while back on the importance of knowing and reconsidering history. In this particular context it's important to note that history tells us of periods in our lives where we see and understand the weight we carried for others only in retrospect.

When former president Mbeki delivered his unexpected resignation speech, many people were left feeling a strange mix of sympathy and schadenfreude. Here was the man who captured us with his poetry and prose, whose call for an African renaissance did not only become a vision for the continent and ourselves but, most importantly, showed us our way of doing things was to be renewed and reimagined. Here was also the man who many saw as aloof and elitist, whose intellectual mind and stubbornness got the better of him to the extent that a substantial number of HIV/Aids-related deaths are now held firmly over his head.

History teaches us, as one of Zapiro's cartoons eloquently depicted at the time that Mbeki fell on his proverbial sword.

Mbeki's successor to the throne of both the ANC and the country, Zuma, was recently hit with the feeble attempt at a motion of no confidence from a collection of opposition parties and their Members of Parliament whose very temporary solidarity, one must say, did little to rouse any confidence. History will in future tell of how such a motion, although futile, essentially captured the feelings of many people in this country - some even within the ANC itself.

While the price for Zuma's ridiculously expensive "security key point" homestead (can I say homestead or is that oppressive language?) has been rising, a number of questions relating to it have also arisen and unsurprisingly he has not once provided a straight answer to these questions. When being interviewed on SABC's People of the South some time back, he said that he did not see any problem with his children being in business with the government while he was the president. Yes, he said that.

He recently told an audience of traditional leaders, that the "African way" was to be embraced over the white man's law. In that fleeting moment, he seems to have forgotten that his first and foremost responsibility is and will always be the protection and promotion of the Constitution of this country. While these are but only a few of Zuma's far too easily committed political faux pas, and while we cannot be sure if Mangaung will be his Waterloo moment, we can rest assured that history will one day tell us or those who come after us what Zuma's role in the greater scheme of things has really been.

History will also explicitly lay out the type of leader and president that Zuma really is. His defenders and collaborators may not be hard pressed to find any criticism of him at the moment as "neo-liberal", "imperialist-inspired" and even "illegal" but history will judge Zuma on his accomplishments and failures. It will compare him to those who came before him and the work they did, the state of the ANC and the country after his term or terms. Apart from human interference and perspective, history will have a lot to say. But I suspect many of us already have an idea of what it will tell us.

View the original online publication here