Jacob Zuma's not the Messiah...

Eusebius McKaiser says it's time we tempered our moral expectations

The chattering classes have developed a voyeuristic obsession with President Jacob Zuma's sexuality. This raises a prickly old question. To what extent can a country's president reasonably expect the most intimate facts about his or her life to be shielded from public scrutiny and moral judgment?

If Zuma's election to the highest office is anything to go by, it would certainly seem that a majority of South Africans do not consider his private antics a deal breaker. This makes the electorate far more sensible than the chattering classes. While it is certainly reasonable to expect minimal moral decency from our leaders, we also need to tamper our expectations so that we do not inadvertently look to public officials for an excessive amount of moral guidance.

It is difficult to get a grip on what exactly the source of anger and disappointment towards Zuma is. One worry is that he is a hypocrite. He preached safe sex and faithfulness on World Aids Day last year and now it all turns out to have been a case of, "Do as I say, not as I do!"

A different argument is hooked to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Government messaging about HIV/AIDS requires the president to demonstrate the kind of behaviour government would like us all to engage in. That includes not having sexual relationships outside your marriages. And if you must, at least use a condom.

Are these arguments convincing? And how do we assess them in relation to the bigger question of whether or not we should, in the first place, care about the private lives of our leaders?

Setting aside the soundness of these arguments for a minute, it is worth speculating about the motivation behind their advancement. It is far from obvious that critics advance them with a sincere interest in political morality. In his most recent book, The Democratic Moment, Xolela Mangcu rehearses an argument he has made elsewhere. Mangcu argues that an important driver of the elite's dislike of Zuma is something of a cultural aesthetic objection to Zuma. It is generally preferable for the soundness of arguments to be logically assessed rather than the motivations of the objector being questioned. However, Mangcu may be onto something in his pop psychologising about Zuma's detractors.

Here is why. When pressed, many people - analysts, journalists, politicians, academics and the chattering classes included - are unable to articulate cogent objections to Zuma's moral shortcomings. And even when some of the objections demonstrably run out of steam, opposition often persists. This lends credence to the pop diagnosis that all this has actually little to do with Zuma. It says more about the distance between what Zuma represents and how some of us define ourselves.

If I define myself as a liberal individualist, speaking the Queen's English, brag about being highly educated and enjoy cocktails around northern Johannesburg, I do not want my cultural landscape to be spoilt by a cheating polygamist in traditional garb at the dinner table next to mine. But notice that, secretly, I am less offended by the immorality of the cheater's lifestyle or his ignorance about substantive gender equality than I am offended by the mere sight of him. He becomes as unwelcome in my worldview as the beggar at the street corner.

It is, at the heart of it, an aesthetic objection and not a principled one. This is the emotional fuel that sustains the arguments against Zuma's infidelity. The actual soundness of some of those arguments is a convenient reality. The cogency of the arguments masks a mischievous elitism. This is why the so-called masses are less fazed about Zuma's existence than the rest of us. They do not share enough of the wealth and elitism that we have a hold over to care as deeply about Zuma's moral failings.

This does not mean that the two arguments set out at the beginning are without merit. Hypocrisy in a leader is certainly not desirable. It is inimical to building trust. Equally, being a decent role model is important. We are therefore justified to be collectively disappointed by Zuma. He let us down. The question is how we should respond to this sense of disappointment. And, as a general rule, how much should we care about the private lives of our politicians?

It seems to me that the near hysteria with which some commentators and media analysts have responded to the whole saga is almost as embarrassing as Zuma's indiscretion itself.  Zuma has much more important weaknesses that should give us cause for concern. For example, does he have the capacity to speak confidently to important policy questions - foreign policy, climate change, crime, education, health etc.?

Does he have the capacity to strike a balance between his famed penchant for listening and showing clear leadership in relation to tensions within the alliance? Can he put a view of his own - and not one that is handed to him by the African National Congress - on any of the sexy issues of the day, like nationalisation of the mines, for example? I very much doubt Zuma's leadership on these fronts. An assessment of his character in relation to these challenges is much more important than whether or not he is a paragon of moral virtue.

If his bedroom life could shed light on whether he can lead us effectively on these policy fronts, then details about his sexuality would take on more obvious relevance. But they do not. Whether or not Zuma had sex with Sonono Khoza does not tell me whether he has the ability to steer us through a recession. It just tells me that he is a ‘player' like many of us.

And even in relation to HIV/AIDS, it is deeply condescending towards South Africans - including those with less formal education than the rest of us - to think they will emulate Zuma as if he is their God. We do not and should not worship Zuma like a bunch of comical followers in Monty Python's Life of Bryan misjudging who the messiah is.

Ultimately, it is very dangerous to expect too much of our leaders. For one thing, we provide a disincentive for potentially talented young South Africans to enter politics. In this internet age, with information about our lives even more easily accessible than usual, potential public servants would have real reason to fear being embarrassed about their personal failures becoming needless public laundry.

The French model of respecting privacy is much more desirable than, say, the American obsession with every detail of a leader's life. Most importantly, we set ourselves up for unnecessary collective depression if we seriously think we can take our moral cue from political leaders who are no less human and no less fragile than the rest of us.

This is not license to behave hypocritically or to be a poor role model. But it is reason for us to temper our expectations and to guard against the kind of unthinking moral hysteria we are witnessing in the media. Let's render the president a less important figure than he might like to be.  

* McKaiser is an associate at the Centre for the Study of Democracy and a contributing editor of Business Day

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