Choosing bad reasons to damn Zuma
Date Released: Mon, 30 September 2013 14:59 +0200
President Zuma singing at a Cosatu event in Midrand. In his column, McKaiser takes a look at the attacks on the presidents intellectual abilities and questions whether these stand or fall by the books he might or might not have read.
The issue is not what the president reads but whether he can manage a political team and deliver to the people, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - Why do people choose weak criticism against President Jacob Zuma when there is so much good criticism to choose from? The latest distracting obsession is with whether, and what, the president reads. I think this ongoing obsession (because it isn’t new, if we’re honest) with the academic record and intellectual depth of Zuma is misplaced.
First, none of the critics compiling recommendations about what Zuma should read appear to have asked Zuma what he has read and what he hasn’t read. Isn’t that ironic?
Views about Zuma’s reading habits are probably based mostly on his speaking skills, his accent, his command of English and an assessment of his debating prowess, and not archival records of life underground during the apartheid era, or on interviews with Zuma about his reading
matter, or conversations with his closest aides who spend time with him.
In other words, anti-intellectualism is demonstrated in the very criticism casually tossed at Zuma. The criticism turns out to be essentially an aesthetic judgment (about which writer Xolela Mangcu wrote brilliantly in his earlier book To the Brink).
More importantly, the criticism is thus evidence-insensitive. These facts about the criticism make the critics appear rather anti-intellectual.
Unless, maybe, the critics are mimicking Zuma for dramatic effect, and I missed the irony? Of course, it’s more likely that they didn’t go the extra mile because Zuma, like Julius Malema, isn’t deserving of careful biography, is he?
Second, and much more interesting than Zuma-the-individual, there is a tricky debate being lazily bypassed here. Why is an intellectual the right sort of character for public office?
Why not academics? What’s the difference, by the way? And who or what is an intellectual?
Former president Thabo Mbeki was well read and well educated, and he delivered us Aids denialism, with tragic consequences. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has many degrees but he is hardly the hallmark of leadership excellence.
It’s not clear that being of an intellectual bent is either necessary or sufficient for effective public political office.
But if that is the case, then why obsess over whether Zuma is familiar with French existentialism or even the details of Marxist debates?
I actually generally switch off, or roll my eyes, when I see the term “intellectual”, and its cousin “public intellectual”, being bandied about. It has never been clear to me what traits qualify you for these dull linguistic and social markers.
I’m particularly suspicious of self-styled public intellectuals, and my worst nightmare is such a term, heaven forbid, ever being thrown in my direction or that of a close friend.
I’d have to disown friends who refer to themselves as “public intellectuals”. If I use that term, hit me over the head with a cricket bat.
It is laden with insecurity about your IQ. Just get on with demonstrating brilliance in your work as writer, academic, researcher, journalist or office-bearer. Labels are for the nouveau-riche.
Does this mean I’m indifferent to what Zuma reads or has read? Not entirely. But I think there’s a different, practical kind of intelligence worth obsessing about that bookishness is an unreliable indicator of.
Here’s my obsession: Does Zuma have the ability to assemble, and manage, a political team that can deliver material outcomes that see most of us live flourishing lives?
If he can’t read, and engage, the National Development Plan, then of course he won’t be a good manager in that sense.
Reading, with comprehension, and showing thought leadership in those discussions, matter.
But that is purpose-driven reading and engagement, and it has a practical aim.
It is very different to the kind of reading we associate with intellectual life outside the body politic.
Frankly, almost no president the world over is a true intellectual.
Even if they had the ability or capacity, they’d be a feeble political leader if they devoted themselves to intellectual pursuit.
And that’s why it is misplaced to worry about Zuma not being an intellectual, or not having read your all-time favourite fiction or non-fiction work.
Of course, some will just yawn at these thoughts, and insist that Zuma is an uneducated buffoon not worthy of dinner at Buckingham Palace.
But the inability to self-examine criticism may just reveal bigotry rather than uncontested truths about what traits are necessarily relevant to public office.
Zuma doesn’t look or sound like your buddies at the dinner party you had on Thursday night, so he must be stupid, and his stupidity must be mended with a compulsory reading list.
The joke’s on the bigot, not on Zuma.
Incidentally I don’t think Zuma is a good leader.
But just because I wish we had a different leader doesn’t mean I will endorse class bigotry masked as critique. There are better reasons, related to governance and political management, to be sad that Zuma is our president.
Ditch the bad reasons.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.
By Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7, weekdays 9am till noon.
Article Source: The Star