Intellectual posturing no substitute for analysis

Vukani Mde and Karima Brown reply to Prince Mashele's attack on Jacob Zuma

Prince Mashele's column piece in The Sowetan last week, on the leadership of Jacob Zuma, is a rant, nothing more, nothing less. It's the sort of intemperate tirade that most of us like to direct, from time to time, against people and things that we dislike intensely, or that we find annoying (see here).

Such tirades are no respecters of reason or rationality, they do not yield to evidence-based persuasion, nor are they cogent or even fathomable. They are expressions of our basest emotions, and often prejudices, revealing to anyone who listens to (or reads) them, our carefully hidden blind spots, our allegiances, and our sheer animal-like capacity for hate.

These emotive rants are never the basis for a debate, evaluation or assessment of anything, not even when they come from the pen of a supposed intellectual, such as Mashele regards himself. The article is replete with gratuitous and poorly argued attacks on Zuma's fitness to lead the ANC and the country.

It should be noted at the outset that Zuma has held countless leadership positions in the ANC (at home and in exile), in KwaZulu-Natal after 1994, and nationally. An assessment of his performance in those capacities, and therefore his ability to lead, isn't particularly difficult. And one would assume most South Africans would be interested in an assessment that showed that Zuma failed to perform as KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Affairs and Tourism.

, or perhaps won no significant propaganda victories against the apartheid government as head of intelligence for the ANC in exile.

If his peace initiatives in KZN and his post-1999 diplomatic duties in the Great Lakes can be shown to have been a disaster, it would have made for thoughtful appraisal of his ability to discharge the role of president of the republic.

Mashele is interested in none of this. What we got instead was personalised disdain, lazy appeals to "intellectual distinction" and other such fanciful and delusional nonsense. What to make of a self-described intellectual - the leader of a supposed research institute, no less - who can't be bothered with basic research or the rules of logic when constructing an argument?

Who uncritically asserts that formal education and intellectual gravitas are somehow the same things, or even that intellectual depth is a sufficient and necessary condition for political leadership in the 21st century. What is Prince Mashele really all about, and how has he managed to get himself so tragically confused about the vexed question of leadership?

Well it cannot, of course, be ignored that Mashele is an ex-speech writer for Thabo Mbeki, the original self-regarding native intellectual, the apparent paragon of modern leadership (if his disciples are to be believed anyway). A man whose intellectual curiosity - nay, whose genius - was so great that at one time it put him at odds with over 20 years of established, research-based science on the Aids virology. Our very own Galileo. He was so great that other, lesser intellectuals deferred to him, put aside their critical faculties and served him even as his intellectual inquiry into the links between HIV and Aids led inexorably to 300 000 preventable deaths. Quite frankly, most South Africans will be glad that Zuma is free of such levels of conceit.

Lastly, what are we to make of The Sowetan's bizarre enterprise in launching this "debate" on leadership? Surely a genuine attempt to get us to talk about leadership would hardly start with a factionalist hatchet-job on a president who's been in office for all of three years, penned by a devoted partisan of the man he ousted from the job in a bitter ANC fight. What's The Sowetan actually doing?

While it's early days yet, the initial signs are not very encouraging for the great debate on leadership. Mashele's contribution is bad enough, but the initial article by the editor of The Sowetan announcing the initiative was itself a problematic intervention.

For one thing, The Sowetan's editor engages in a quite outrageous misuse of a 2005 article by South African Communist Party deputy Jeremy Cronin (see here). The said article was part of a debate at the time among Left formations on whether to help Zuma contest Mbeki for the ANC presidency, and whether this would help advance a Left agenda. Cronin reminded his readers that Zuma wasn't himself a Left progressive, but more importantly argued that he couldn't be separated from some of the more egregious trends then underway in the ANC (according to the SACP's analysis).

For some reason, the editor of The Sowetan interprets Cronin's list of the socio-political ills then plaguing the ANC as a "prophetic" manifesto against the desirability of Zuma as ANC president. But perhaps the most problematic part of the article is this: "There is emerging consensus in society that Zuma is an anti-thesis of what the ANC should be representing. That we as society do not mind living with this cold truth and are likely to re-elect him to office is indicative of our levels of tolerance."

Really? In society? How does one gauge social consensus in an electoral democracy, other than by reference to election results? To state the obvious, which is apparently required, the ANC, with Zuma at the helm, has won two nationally-contested elections (municipal and parliamentary). Nor can the consensus be really that strong if the very same society is likely to re-elect him to office.

Why inaugurate a debate on leadership by stating, emphatically and without foundation that the current leader we have is not fit to lead? If this is your point, why not just state that and dispense with the fanciful charade about a "debate" on leadership? The answer lies less with a desire for an honest reflection on the nature of leadership, and more with elitist prejudice masquerading as analysis.

Mde and Brown are co-editors of SOUTHERN AFRICA REPORT. An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sowetan.

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