Who do you say I am?

by Fikile Moya

If Jacob Zuma had asked his followers the two questions Jesus Christ asked his disciples as they set off for Caesarea Philippi: “Who do the people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” and if he received an honest answer, we probably would not be here today calling Zuma a former president.

Zuma’s star rose on a cult of personality. He exploited deeply-held sentiments. His last speech as president was littered with the contradictions that dogged his entire presidency.

If we were to be charitable, we might think that those closest to him misled him into believing that the masses thought him messianic. In truth, his personal and political scandals eroded the very dignity of both the office and the man.

That he could still ask, as he took his last steps to the political gallows, “What have I done wrong?”, showed just how much he had lost touch with how the people perceived him.

Zuma’s sychophantic cheerleaders prevented him from confronting his own litany of personal and political transgressions. This led him to the humiliating decision of Constitutional Court which found him guilty of violating his own oath of office. That he faces criminal charges relating to dishonesty could mark the low-point of his time in political office.

Zuma became a collective political nightmare for both the country and his party precisely because we washed our hands of the obligation to remain vigilant and to guard our democracy from those who were entrusted with public office. We assumed that everyone could rise up to the demands of the nation’s top office. We now know we were wrong!

It is something of a modern-era pop-psychology trope that an experience is only bad if it has no lesson for the future. We, too, must not fail to learn the lessons from the demise of the Zuma-era.

The Zuma-era illustrated just how badly things could go if a democratic system reserved no place for shame as the useful red-card to discipline those who were found to be guilty of abusing the public trust. Nor can we ignore the fact that there were no independent systems in place to alert the politicians of the true story of how their actions were perceived.

We cannot accuse Zuma of introducing corruption into state institutions, but his indifference to the use of the public purse, best illustrated by how he mockingly burst out laughing and mispronouncing his birthplace of Nkandla, encapsulates the utter shamelessness of the man.

South African society must spell out in clear terms what it expects from its leaders, especially as it pertains to their personal and political morality, financial prudence, and respect for the office and the public they serve. These expectations should be the same, regardless of party affiliation.

What sort of leadership does our country need at this time? As South Africa gains a new president, we ordinary citizens are called not only to remain vigilant defenders of our democracy, but to be prepared to tell our leaders, what Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

Mr Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

f.moya@jesuitinstitute.org.za @fikelelom
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