TRAPPED IN TIME
The potential future leaders of SA are likely to reflect the mood of the country in their decisions and action, rather than display a bold purpose and fresh vision that sets them apart
Which came first: President Jacob Zuma or the environment that produced him? One could ask that question about former president Thabo Mbeki, DA head Mmusi Maimane or EFF leader Julius Malema. To what degree did they just happen to personify the ideals and beliefs that defined the SA zeitgeist? Or, to what degree did their personal traits define it?
It is a conundrum worth considering, because our zeitgeist is now as complex as it has ever been — and big leadership questions loom large.
Zeitgeist is, in one sense, a synonym for “the national mood”. On a personal level, moods are fluid and their effect on priorities is inconsistent and often disproportionate.
Of those various concerns that together form our collective id and superego — our base instincts and moral code — it would seem awareness of corruption is pre-eminent today. It is perhaps the primary lens through which we analyse current affairs and evaluate leadership.
Race is in the mix, as it always has been. And so too, it would seem, are various elements of what is best described as a “revolutionary mentality” — the notion that we are still suffering the effects of a great injustice, that the status quo is unsatisfying in its attempts to address this, and thus that profound and fundamental change is needed.
Emotionally, there is much anger, despair and a sense of deprivation. This is augmented by rampant low self-esteem, which has manifested as a desire for dignity and respect. People who have organised into myriad different special-interest groups want to be understood and have their choices affirmed. Those are some, if not all, of the more universal SA impulses right now.
But one can use the idea of zeitgeist
in a more specific way. The ANC, for example, occupies a universe with its own particular characteristics. At present, unity is a defining feature of its particular zeitgeist. For the DA, it is power and identity. For the EFF, racial injustice — and resentment about that fact.
The SA zeitgeist has changed over time. There was a period, after 1994 and with the name “Mandela” as the ultimate metonym for it, that optimism held sway. But, via Mbeki — during whose time the zeitgeist of the ANC and that of SA seemed to overlap, so immense was the ANC’S hegemonic grip — abstract ideas around nationalistic pride (the “African renaissance”) inversely complemented a highly technocratic era.
Zuma has done as much to divide as to unify. Certainly he has fractured the relationship between the ANC’S identity and that of individual South Africans. The paternal nature of the ANC post 1994, with Mandela as father figure and Mbeki as the practical steward of his legacy, now stands as a point of comparison.
Today, Zuma has evoked a universal disdain for corruption, nepotism and mismanagement. That the ANC is at the heart of it is an ironic byproduct of his tenure.
Zuma’s rise to power provides a classic illustration of how the zeitgeist can be used to generate enormous political capital — and, likewise, of how dangerous that is when the individual involved is a fundamentalist, or malevolent.
In 2007 the ANC mistook a man of the people for a man at odds with the people. This was mainly because his own rise to power, and the things he seemed to exemplify, happened to coincide with a series of more general sentiments about the country.
The idea of unity now represents the last remnants of ANC hegemony. So it is understandable why the leading candidates for the party’s presidency have all put the idea front and centre. ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize’s entire offer would seem to revolve around a compromise or unity candidate. That the idea resonates at all is miraculous. But the question of whether any candidate is actually able to capitalise on it is the key.
It is the zeitgeist, with regard to both the ANC and SA more generally, that seems to have produced the current crop of ANC pretenders to the throne.
Zuma has done his part to shape and influence the parameters, but the point is this: what we see now is leadership as a product of the environment. Today’s leaders can’t be compared with Mandela or Mbeki, who imposed themselves on circumstance. Rather, circumstance has produced them.
There is a price to pay for this, and it can be a high one. Leaders who mirror society back to itself are inherently weak. And, of course, there is the risk that, like Zuma, this personification of the national mood is no more than a temporary coincidence.
It is telling that, almost across the board, no ANC presidential candidate has presented a policy platform or vision that is distinct or detailed in a particular way, and that sets him or her apart. The primary aim is to reflect back to the ANC and SA the beliefs and ideals that hold sway.
Every politician does this to some degree — but here it is the beginning and end of all campaigning. Here, as with Zuma before, we have an election by genuflection. Only it is unity (and corruption) rather than socialist populism that is the image in the mirror.
It is a problem not particular to the ANC. Maimane, the DA’S “first black leader”, is a product of the same inclination. He is the inevitable manifestation of a narrative that far precedes him. And so, like all leaders elected in this fashion, he lacks the gravitas and conviction of, say, Malema, a personality imbued with far more natural charismatic purpose. If Malema is a leader, Maimane is a follower. And the ANC is in the process of electing a follower of its own, whoever wins.
This is ironic because part of the zeitgeist is the yearning for real leadership. It is why we transform the mediocre into heroes. We long for a return to the past. But it seems that outside of Malema (by some distance the most natural of SA’S political leaders, whatever you make of his principles), the trend is more towards compromise than conviction.
The next ANC leader will be one of any number of things. But he or she won’t be a true leader. The person will have been elected, for five years, on the back of a contemporary crisis. Perhaps the new leader will be able to solve it; perhaps not. But beyond that, he or she will have little else to offer.
It is the zeitgeist that rules our democracy — a volatile mix of desperation and resentment. And, because it is in charge, it will get what it wants: a temporal politician, born of the moment and forever trapped in it.