IT WAS a cold, grey Monday morning in Paris, France in 1999. Being in charge of a presidential visit is a logistical nightmare but this one was easy. No escorts, no bells, no whistles. A low-key visit to address a meeting of the international socialist movement.
Our VIP was a very relaxed and no-nonsense person. When at 7am we booked then deputy president Jacob Zuma into his hotel just off the Champs-Elysées, his entourage informed us that his suitcase was misplaced and he had a very important presentation to make at nine that morning, and that without a suit.
In the cold Parisian morning breeze I volunteered and set off on the Champs-Elysées to find a tailor. At first Zuma was fine with the idea that he would be able to explain his relaxed attire to the gathering of renowned international socialists. Zuma came across as a sort of decent fellow, not asking the impossible from those around him.
After covering the length of the Champs-Elysées I found a tailor and brought him to the hotel. A suit was adjusted for Zuma on the spot. Zuma was friendly and very easygoing. He expressed a deep, humble appreciation for the effort we made to find him a suit in those early hours in Paris.
I later met him again during negotiations between the Hutus and Tutsis in Bujumbura, Burundi, when he was facilitating direct contact between them. Mandela was getting old and Zuma was instructed to assist him. I remember once briefing him in Kigali on the position of President Paul Kagame and he listened patiently like a true elder. Some in his entourage were convinced that these qualities of patience, humbleness and an open consultative approach made him a perfect candidate to be the next Mandela.
When we finished the briefing in Kigali we waited patiently to hear what Zuma had to say. After a moment of silence he threw back his head in a sort of contemplative manner and sighed: "Oh Africa, my Africa". This act was a clear indication of his disillusionment at the time with his African counterparts who entertained themselves with petty politics. I was impressed and I liked him. I defended him on many occasions as I came to know him in those days, as a down-to-earth, humble person, a likeable fellow.
Returning recently to SA after years abroad and seeing how things have developed I am concerned about the man I met many years ago. What happened to the elder, the sage, the potential wise leader of a nation? Is it possible that a man who was so gifted in leading discussions for hours between the Hutus and Tutsis, and got them to reach common ground in Burundi, would eventually fail so dismally at governing a nation? What happened to that man? I think we need to dig deeper and try to understand the flaws that come with democracy. Democracy is not a magic bullet, and certainly it not the answer to the problems in many African countries and cultures. In itself democracy is dependent on a culture that questions things. We can safely assume that in some cultures questioning things is just not a priority. We have to accept that we are all different. Democracy becomes a system and not an individual.
When I first arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi, where I eventually lived for five years, I was picked up at the airport by an acquaintance of the South African Embassy in Kigali. We did not get far before the traffic came to a complete stop. There we sat, and the man in the middle of the road had an AK-47, so there was no sense in getting upset. Asking my new driver what the hold-up was I was told that the president was travelling to the airport. My next impatient question as a South African was naturally "Why would you allow this?" The answer, spoken with resignation as if it was a very silly question, was: "He is the President…." How does this happen? I have seen so often in African countries how the leader initially starts out as a father of the nation and is eventually reduced to the head of a clan. It always starts with good intentions, but somewhere along the road they lose direction and leadership. Apart from Mandela, the only exception I came across was Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Like Mandela, he is a leader of a nation and not a clan. The interests of his people override those of even his closest confidants.
What does this mean for those who are baying for Zuma’s head? Does it matter if the Republicans or the Democrats win in the US? Democracy creates a system, and it is that system that takes over, whether you are in the US or Africa, with a small difference.
In Africa, presidents tend to be surrounded by people who want something. I think back to a time in Bujumbura where I had to brief Zuma on talks I had been engaged in with the Hutu rebels, in which we tried to get them to Arusha to negotiate. The hallway in front of his humble suite was abuzz with security detachments, protocol people and private secretaries, all screening Zuma from the outside world. Once inside it was dead quiet, and Zuma was eating dinner alone. It dawned on me that he was not the master and commander — the people outside were dictating his fate.
It made me realise that even if a leader falls, the system remains. A new chief will take that quiet spot in the suite. For now the masses want Zuma’s blood, and they will get it. But what then? The people outside will not go away. It will take very strong leadership to turn things around. And if we do not get that, will we demand that more heads roll?