This week I addressed a letter to the President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. I asked Zuma to resign his office in the interests of progress and development of our country. I charged that since he assumed office in 2009, the fortunes of our country have hit their lowest ebb on every possible indicator.
I reasoned that as chief executive of South Africa Plc, he must take responsibility and step aside. By so doing he will allow another leader to take over and guide the country to new heights.
I grant that this was not an easy letter to write. That is because our electoral system allows anyone whom the majority party in the National Assembly presents as a candidate to secure election.
It is also an extraordinary step in that Zuma “enjoys” the support of the majority of the members of Parliament, and that within his own party he was recently elected by an overwhelming majority.
I also note that our constitution does not require any preconditions for qualification as president.
As an ordinary citizen, I recognise that the president does not need to take any notice of what I say.
In doing so, however, I make bold to recall that Archbishop Desmond Tutu penned a letter to Prime Minister John Vorster in 1976 warning of an impending catastrophe for the country if he failed to pay heed to the resentment expressed in black communities about the oppressive policies of the government.
It was a prophetic intervention. A few months later the Soweto Uprising occurred. Similar advisories by church people like Bishop Ambrose Reeves preceded the Sharpeville Massacres.
Political leaders ignore these not just at their own peril but at risk of the pain and tragedy that may engulf the nation.
I also thought long and hard about what a prophetic moment was being presented. Having initially undertaken to observe a pyrrhic moment and suspend judgment in 2009, I have got to the point where I can no longer keep silent.
Fundamental to my unease about the state of our nation is poor leadership. I believe good leadership is a critical factor in governance.
I cannot go along with the idea that leadership does not matter, neither do I accept a notion habitually bandied about in the ANC, that leadership is by collective.
There can be no collective leadership without a leader, inasmuch as there cannot be a team without a captain.
A so-called “collective leadership” strikes me as mob rule.
My second motivation for taking this step is the recognition that we have to pull back from the precipice – or to coin a phrase, from this “moral cliff” – where any sense of public good or virtue, loyalty or restraint are absent, and the moral sensitivity of the nation is in paralysis.
In other words, the absence of a moral basis for human conduct – especially in public life – is totally lacking and the victims will be the poor and the powerless.
But how did this come about?
In large measure through the Machiavellian manner by which Zuma was wormed into the leadership of the ANC at Polokwane in 2007, notwithstanding the serious charges that were being investigated against him. The ANC went on to use its power and influence to have these charges withdrawn.
Yes, this was a president who had only recently stood trial for the rape of a younger woman which, regardless of the outcome, signalled that he was someone with poor judgment. In acquitting him, Judge Willem van der Merwe found it necessary to counsel him about his personal conduct.
Notwithstanding all that, the ANC was voted into power by a democratic election. In other words, yes, we have a leader we deserve.
But the focus of my concern relates to the period since Zuma became president.
He began his term of office by increasing the size and cost of the government by over a third. The cabinet was increased from 27 to 34, and all ministries were allocated at least one deputy minister.
The size of the presidency ballooned, not just by a fivefold multiplication of the Spousal Office(s) and a large brood partly financed by the state, but by a proliferation of apparatchiks and hangers-on.
Administrative and strategic functions such as monitoring and valuation, as well as the National Planning Commission, were established as ministerial offices.
Above all, King’s House in Durban was extensively refurbished to serve as an active presidential residence, but no sooner was that done than amounts variously estimated in excess of R200 million were used to develop the president’s private palace in Nkandla.
A feature of Zuma’s presidency has been the almost weekly exposés of indiscretions, whether in utterances that are ill-conceived – as he did in Parliament about our democracy being the prerogative of the majority party to rule untrammelled by opposition concerns; or about clever blacks; or about culture seemingly allowing one to do whatever one believed to be one’s culture; or about women, signifying disregard for our constitutional provisions on non-sexism and gender equality.
As if that was not enough, almost weekly there are reports of the president benefiting from the irregular usage of state resources, including the provision of a tuck shop for one of his wives at state expense, or the diversion of state resources by ministers such as Tina Joemat-Pettersson to the president’s preferred projects.
On civil liberties we have reached a stage where freedom of expression is at risk.
There is reason to believe the president has no appreciation of the constitutional democracy over which he was elected to preside.
Indeed, he is required to “uphold, defend and respect the constitution … (and) to promote the unity of the nation and that which will advance the Republic” (s.83).
In all of this South Africans are afraid; they are also angry.
Day by day South Africans from all walks of life are marching.
They are protesting.
At times it is about the lack of service delivery, but it is also about blatant corruption in local authorities.
It is also about nepotism and non-recognition of processes, especially in housing.
Many of these protests are violent, which indicates the level of frustration felt by many communities.
Above all, it has to do with a lack of trust in public officials and their lack of commitment to serve the interests of the people.
The collapse of the labour relations regime in the wake of Marikana has to do with this collapse of trust in the political systems.
The police have been implicated in violence against communities – whether it is Abahlali and their claims about the Cato Manor Police Unit or the lack of professional expertise in policing that may have led to the Marikana tragedy.
We have seen other instances where state terror has been unleashed on protesting communities.
Beyond that summary of life lies a government and presidency that lacks passion and sensitivity to the plight of the people.
The collapse of the education system in provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, or of poor health provision in places like Gauteng – to the extent where the absence of doctors and health professionals has led to the deaths of the innocent – or the indignity of treatment at our health centres, or the absence of basic medicines at clinics, all suggest a government that just does not care.
The result is that we have a government that is conservative in outlook, impervious to positive criticism and so afraid of any voice of opposition that abuse of state power is not uncommon.
With that, we are beginning to see the emergence of party (or presidential) militia in the guise of the Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans, who are the new Gestapo with a fascist agenda.
What the country needs is visionary leadership, with ideas that inspire, and a radical policy orientation that is transformative.
If such an approach were adopted, a radical rethink of economic policy would be possible, the education system would be overhauled, and social cohesion would take on a new meaning.
The president and the government would cast a beady eye on the economy not for personal benefit, but in recognition of the fact that a functioning economy would guarantee a better life for all.
It would also transform politics so that those who are in public office for personal gain would have no place in politics.
To the extent that this government gets focused on what matters for the people and develops a people-centred governance ethic, we remain a long way from what Nelson Mandela promised in July 1993 when he said that “…the time had come for us to address the burning question of feeding the millions in our country who are hungry, clothing the millions that are naked, accommodating the millions that are homeless, and creating jobs for the millions who are unemployed.”
As South Africans we deserve better than we are receiving.
Clearly the president and his party lack motivation, skills and ideas to transform this country into the haven of opportunity and prosperity that 1994 promised.
My letter is intended for South Africans to have a debate about our government, to determine the competencies and quality of leadership, and to envision a new future that the ANC is clearly incapable of providing.
The call to the president to resign is serious, urgent and timely.
* Pityana is the former vice chancellor of the University of SA