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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.