He used to be the Teflon president, but finally SA has lost faith in Zuma

06 December 2015 - 02:00 By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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Mangosuthu Buthelezi with former US president George HW Bush in the Oval Office at the White House, where Buthelezi says he found a receptive ear to his ideas on how to combat apartheid through means other than sanctions.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi with former US president George HW Bush in the Oval Office at the White House, where Buthelezi says he found a receptive ear to his ideas on how to combat apartheid through means other than sanctions.
Image: GETTY IMAGES

I have sat in the Oval Office several times. I remember discussing the Sullivan Principles with president Jimmy Carter in 1979; these established a corporate code of conduct for General Motors.

At the time, General Motors was the largest employer of black South Africans, and how it treated its workers was a key concern.

I found Carter's successors, president Ronald Reagan and president George Herbert Bush, equally willing to discuss the US's influence on our liberation struggle. Like British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Dutch prime minister Joop den Uyl, they embraced my argument that sanctions and disinvestment would damage the economy we would inherit.

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I did, however, find myself having to criticise Reagan. Attending his prayer breakfast in Washington in 1983, I took the opportunity to criticise his administration for endorsing the Labour Party's decision to participate in the newly formed tricameral parliament, which further excluded black South Africans.

Shortly thereafter, criticism began to rain down on his head thick and fast, beginning with the Iran-Contra Affair and continuing with one scandal after another. Under his administration, 138 officials were investigated, indicted or convicted. Yet his popularity with ordinary Americans seemed unscathed. Thus Reagan was dubbed "the Teflon president"; criticism just didn't stick.

For some time now, that has been the case with our own president. One scandal after another has exploded around our president, including his long legal battle over alleged fraud and corruption, failure to disclose his financial interests, Marikana, Nkandla, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Hamas - never mind statements such as "The ANC comes before South Africa", "Teenage mothers should have their babies confiscated" and "Democracy gives the ANC more rights than anyone else".

Despite all this, President Jacob Zuma has remained popular among South Africans, and ANC supporters have continued to vote ANC.

But could that be changing?

Last week, AfroBarometer released its 2015 survey results, which offer a reliable insight into the views of South Africans across all demographics. Since the last survey in 2011, confidence in Zuma has dropped from 64% to just 36%. Measured by how much South Africans distrust the president, disapprove of his performance and believe there is corruption in his office, Zuma has brought our country to an all-time low.

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Two-thirds of our citizens distrust the president. And these are not just opposition supporters, whites and Afrikaners. The figure is alarmingly high among those who declare themselves ANC supporters: 50% of those who vote ANC distrust Zuma.

In previous presidencies, even when the president was not popular, people still believed corruption stopped at the Presidency. There may have been corruption in the government in general, but the office of the president was considered sound. We also believed that the president adhered to the law and respected parliament. Thus it was possible for the president to rebuild confidence.

Now, however, the picture has shifted. Almost 60% of South Africans believe that Zuma ignores the law, the courts and parliament. Even among diehard ANC supporters, this is the worst perception of any sitting president since 1994.

This is a tragic picture of South Africa. Far from being a cause for opposition parties to celebrate, the waning confidence of our citizens in our country's president is reason for deep concern. It is not the man himself who is sustaining damage, but the office of the president. That will have severe repercussions for stability, unity and order within our country, as well as for our image outside.

Every time the president chooses to laugh at the questions posed by MPs, confidence is lost in the presidency. One wonders how the president can rise before parliament, read a prepared script, and then proceed to contradict all he has read in off-the-cuff remarks and jocular banter.

"I don't know how to stop my laughter," he said. "Is it hurting?"

The answer is yes, it is hurting. It is hurting our people's confidence in their president. It is hurting our international image. It is hurting the chances of investment in South Africa. It is hurting our efforts at reconciliation and unity. It is hurting our trust that the leaders of this country have our best interests at heart.

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Another telling result from the AfroBarometer survey is the rising belief among South Africans that we as citizens must hold government and the president to account. We still believe it is largely the role of parliament. But more of us believe that we have a say, and it is up to us to get our leaders working.

There is an increase in the number of respondents who say they would vote if an election were held tomorrow. More people know who they would vote for, and more people would vote for opposition parties. Indeed, according to AfroBarometer, support for the IFP would double if an election were held tomorrow.

With citizens becoming more politically active, democracy may well be strengthened. But there is another side to this that we need to mitigate. Many of our citizens lack a mature understanding of the workings of democracy and see violent protest as the only form of effective participation. This idea is given credence when the government ignores its people until they revolt.

As the tide in South Africa moves towards popular participation, responsible leaders must educate citizens on how to influence governance through positive channels.

If the ruling party is forcing our people to protest, and some in the opposition are capitalising on the chaos, parties like the IFP become all the more needed, for we are the ones teaching people to build while the country is torn apart.

Buthelezi is president of the IFP

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