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The debate over our anti-intellectual president has raised deeper questions about what it means to lead, writes Richard Calland.
Cape Town - An interesting and useful debate has emerged in the past few days about whether the president reads and whether the head of government should ideally be an “intellectual”.
A wide range of views has surfaced, among them those who argue that given the complexity of modern government and the role the president must play on the global stage, he should be well-read so that he can be, and can appear to be, well-informed and in command of his subject.
Others have argued that what the president has or does not have on his bedside table is either irrelevant or none of our business. The educational qualifications of a president, they argue, are irrelevant to how he conducts himself: what matters is the quality of his political judgment.
Some commentators have reminded us of the notion of the “organic intellectual” – someone whose grasp of ideas comes not from books or education, but “from the ground” and is, therefore, more connected with real life and so, more authentic.
The view that I express in my new book, The Zuma Years, and expressed in a speech last Thursday at the Cape Town Press Club, was based on what a senior cabinet minister told me: that the president doesn’t read, or doesn’t read in sufficient detail, the briefing documents necessary for him to maintain a firm grip on his Cabinet.
Curiously, the Presidency felt obliged to put out a statement on Friday denying my argument. Has a presidential spokesman anywhere in the world ever made a formal statement saying, in effect, “the president does read”?
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj missed my point. I was contrasting President Jacob Zuma’s style and approach to that of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who read everything and who was, therefore, able to keep his Cabinet ministers on their toes.
Moreover, he was rarely caught out, as Zuma often is, when asked about the detail of policy. But as Eusebius McKaiser pointed out in his column on Monday, “Choosing bad reasons to damn Zuma” (See related articles above), this did not necessarily make Mbeki a better president.
This is why the debate is useful as well as interesting, because it forces us to consider what are the skills and attributes we want from our leaders and what are the implications of having one sort of leader over another. As we enter an electoral campaign period, this is especially valuable, however uncomfortable it may be at times.
After all, there have been some very powerful political leaders around the world who could not be described as well-read. And Max du Preez, another commentator from this paper, tweeted amusingly last week that president PW Botha was once asked what he read and replied “the Bible and Farmer’s Weekly”.
US presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were hardly intellectuals and were barely immersed in the detail of policy, but love them or hate them, they were effective communicators, able to strip away the technical detail to speak directly to their core political constituents.
But they had a massive staff of highly skilled advisers to support and guide them.
In my book, I describe how part of the Polokwane “revolution” included the re-structuring of the Presidency. The victors of Polokwane were intent on ensuring that Zuma did not have the same power over his Cabinet as Mbeki.
The “kitchen cabinet” of advisers (the policy co-ordination and advisory service) that Mbeki had so painstakingly built up, was dismantled. Now, as one senior government adviser told me: “We know the president gets advice, we just don’t know where he gets it.”
This has implications for accountability, too. On what basis is the president making the choices that he does if he doesn’t read the briefing documents with sufficient detail and doesn’t have a strong team of officials to read, digest and summarise them for him?
A key part of my argument is that in the modern world, where government is so complex, a president needs to be sufficiently on top of his or her subject and have sufficient grasp of the issues that the Cabinet is discussing to be an effective leader. Senior officials and Cabinet ministers expect it and find it hard to respect a political principal who does not have that grasp, however “organically grounded” their instinct for political decision-making may be.
The last point is a more complex one about what such leadership signals to people. Rather rudely, I told my Cape Town audience that Mbeki was the embodiment of the “philosopher king” and Zuma’s approach was “the epitome of anti-intellectualism”.
I have been attacked for this, accused of snobbery. Others have picked up the point and developed it, however, adding welcome nuance and suggesting that the problem is that at a time when we should be encouraging people – and younger people especially – to read more and embrace ideas, we need to have the right example set from the very top and that this is another way in which Zuma lets the people of South Africa down.
Remember, after all, that this was the president who last year attacked “clever blacks” for being, well, presumably too clever for their own good. For all his faults, Mbeki would never have done that.
* Richard Calland is Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town and author of The Zuma Years: South Africa’s Changing Face of Power (Zebra Books)
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.