Morality Politics

Does Zuma read? Does it matter?

JZIt’s slightly amusing that it wasn’t his book, The Zuma Years, but rather¬†Richard Calland’s comments to the Cape Town Press Club last week that drew fire from Mac Maharaj, President Zuma’s spokesperson. Maharaj says that Calland claiming Zuma “doesn’t read” is “incorrect, unfortunate, and misleading”, and also “serves to perpetuate stereotypes”.

Amusing, because when I read Calland’s book on August 17 and 18 this year, I noticed that chapter 3 opens with one of Zuma’s cabinet ministers being quoted as saying “Zuma doesn’t read”. So, I suppose we can conclude that regardless of how much Zuma or Maharaj might read, they at least hadn’t read this book. Or, they didn’t feel it necessary to comment on this outrage until they had heard it reported by the press, rather than having seen it in its original printed form – attributed not to Calland, but to Zuma’s anonymous minister.

So, you might say that this becomes further evidence for Calland’s claim, in that the details of a case like this matter, and the details can’t be conveyed by selective quotes from a Sapa newsfeed. Calland could be accused of fabricating the quote if you like – but that’s a different matter to chastising him as if he had made the claim himself.

Also, the claim crops up in chapter 3, after Calland begins the book with Mbeki. Mbeki is fairly uncontroversially known as an intellectual (whether pseudo or legit is up to your definitions, but he was certainly bookish). The detail regarding Zuma not being a reader is inserted by way of contrast, and by way of presenting Zuma as an entirely different sort of political operator to Mbeki (specifically, one who engages mostly with practical details rather than philosophical nuances).

Accusing Calland of making an “incorrect, unfortunate and misleading” statement is, therefore, an instance of a non-intellectual engagement (which isn’t necessarily meant to mean an incompetent, or incorrect engagement) with the situation, akin to what Calland describes as being the “house style” in the chapter on Zuma.

However, discussion about the Calland speech at the Press Club and Maharaj’s reaction have raised the question of whether it matters if Zuma reads or not, and if it does, whether it matters what he reads.

When Brooks Spector, Associate Editor of the Daily Maverick (disclosure in case you didn’t know: I wrote for them for three years) asked for recommendations for JZ’s reading list, I was quick to suggest Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Not because I thought Zuma in particular needed to read it, but because I think most people would benefit from reading it (someone who I won’t name here can confirm that I also suggested it as a gift to all the members of the Western Cape Provincial Cabinet).

So that makes my bias quite clear, I suspect – I would like for our political leadership to be readers, and to be thinkers. If I were an American, I’d be one of those Americans wishing I could have the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet¬†as my President. But I’d also like to resist insisting on being a reader as a requirement, because it’s a) not too surprising that someone who has been in a university for 22 years would like an intellectual president, and people like me are hardly representative; and b) because being an intellectual force is only one way of leading, and not necessarily the best one in all circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’re not an intellectual president/leader yourself, you sure as hell should be smart enough to surround yourself with people who are. Decisions need to be made regarding allocation of scarce resources, managing crises and the like, and you can only get so far with a smile and a handshake, or even with some backroom-backstabbing. But so long as you inspire confidence in those you are charged with leading, and meet some basic standard of competence (while stocking your cabinet with people who can do the things you can’t do), it would be inappropriate for us to demand that JZ, or any president, be a thinker themselves.

Zuma’s life didn’t allow for decades in a university. It didn’t allow for a day at a university, and if I recall correctly, he didn’t finish secondary school. But there are different ways of being smart, or capable, or inspirational. When we criticise Zuma, or anyone else, we should be careful to not assume the priority of any one of those particular ways, leading us to reject someone’s efforts simply because they don’t fit our template of one sort of ideal leader.

In Zuma’s case, my lack of confidence in his leadership is not because he doesn’t read. It’s mostly thanks to the fact that he doesn’t seem to have stocked his cabinet (or elsewhere) with people who make up for the skills and knowledge he lacks. Instead, he appears to stock the relevant bodies with whomever will serve to keep him in place and out of prison, all the while displaying the sort of superficiality and vanity more akin to a 3rd-world dictator (think Zapiro, Daryl Peense, or Brett Murray, or Chumani Maxwele) than to a credible and respect-worthy statesman.

In short, it’s not that he doesn’t read, but that he doesn’t lead.

External World General

Tuning out (and in)

Since Sunday morning, the Doctor and I have slowly been making our way from the Chesapeake Bay to New Bern, North Carolina, in a boat ably piloted by the pater familias. I must confess that I was worried about sporadic Internet access – not only dreading a backlog of emails to digest and respond to, but also knowing that I would be missing out on all sorts of interesting chatter on Twitter.

But being away from the Internet – and perhaps especially from Twitter – can be a good thing. Now that I’m catching up on a few day’s worth of timeline in a few hours, I can see that I might have become involved in various wars, in ways that might later be regretted. The forced remove conduces to slower consideration.

It also starkly reveals how little there is worth paying attention to – among the gems of insightful links and stimulating conversations, there is still so much wasted time, and so many pointless moments of narcissism on a platform like Twitter. And of course, we can all be guilty of those, and I know I sometimes am – but we should try to make those funny, at least, so that some value can be extracted from them.

The one thing I regret having missed is the conversation around Business Day’s publishing the 2008 Sunday Times report, which occupied many SA Twitter timelines on June 15. If you know nothing about this story, read this (see links to earlier articles at the bottom), this and this (especially this last one, where the editor of Business Day, Peter Bruce, summarises why BD published the report, and his views on the controversy that resulted from doing so).

Sure, I can read all the virtual column-inches now, but the conversation has now slowed – the real-time exchanging of views between interested parties has concluded, and opinions are most likely entrenched. You get a chance to influence what people think, and have them influence what you think, on a platform such as Twitter, and this often happens before the columns, op-eds and articles are written. And we don’t often go back to revise our views, especially once we have committed them to ‘paper’. So these conversations are a pity to miss, and one clear advantage that the social web has over books and paper.

But despite having missed a few such conversations, it has been wonderful to get a chance to do some serious reading. If you’re interested in the conversation around what effects social media and the Internet are having on us, read Jaron Lanier’s wonderfully contrarian You are not a gadget. If you are interested in debates around personhood – what makes you you, and are you the same you as you were 20 years ago – Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick is very good.

Both sorts of interacting (ie. the immediate and the traditional) with words, and with ideas, are valuable. We shouldn’t neglect or demonize either of them – but rather make sure we take full advantage of both. But having said that, until our small boating crew gets back to terra firma next weekend, I quite look forward to reading a few more books.

External World General

Passing the buck

Part of my routine, accompanying the second cup of coffee, is my morning browse through the 100 or so items that have accumulated in Google Reader overnight. As any of you who use it would know, it’s a very useful way to stay on top of peripheral interest areas, so long as you keep a firm editorial hand.

What I mean is that – as with most sources of information – if you don’t pay attention to filtering, the signals are soon drowned out by noise, and something quite interesting from one source can get drowned out by 10 links from some blogger who should really save his one-liners and links for Twitter (or keep them to himself).