Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Jacob Zuma. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

IN TERMS of the now-standard analysis, or what passes for analysis, the presidential decision framework has three key aspects. One, self interest; two, spite; and three stupidity. On this reading, what happens when President Jacob Zuma faces a challenge is that he asks (a) how he can benefit himself or his cronies, and (b) how best can he put one over the white capitalists in so doing? Most damningly, it is assumed that he neither understands nor cares about the economic consequences of his actions.

In fairness to the (critical) mob, our first citizen has himself lent real credence to this assessment over the course of his six-year tenure. His ousting of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was positively Amin-esque. Any remaining doubts as to his unsuitability for the toughest job in the country were dispelled in a blaze of artless, cynical, comic venality.

If ours were a mature democracy we’d long since have had a new president, pressed into the job by the governing party itself. The truth is, though, we’re a very long way short of that ideal, and that fact has a variety of implications, most of them uncomfortable.

Consider the following:

Derision comes easily, and has its place, but we also need to bear in mind that we’re talking about a person regarded by many as the embodiment of their hopes and ideals. Most rural Africans, and many of their urban brethren, voted for Zuma, and see him as their leader, and in a terribly fractured society that must count for something. We owe it if not to the man himself but to the office and to ourselves as a fledgling, stumbling collective, to be a little more respectful in our judgments, and perhaps a little less harsh — we white sophisticates, in particular.

The axing of Nene may have been vengeful, and monumentally ill-judged, but what it did not betray was a Chavez-like rejection of market economics. Political pundits went into overdrive on the basis of Zuma’s public statement that the price of a commodity is properly determined not by supply and demand but by "the labour that went into producing it", but having listened to the whole (rambling) speech I’m pretty sure they got that wrong.

Yes, like most of the ANC leadership, Zuma was reared on Marx, not Smith or Samuelson, but this was a throwaway line, delivered more with humour than with didactic or critical intent. Our president might not care much for capitalist theory or properly appreciate its workings, but that doesn’t mean he’s blind to its virtues. He may not be willing to subordinate redistribution to growth, but that’s not to say he actually gets any pleasure from seeing the country impoverished.

The speech is worth listening to for another reason as well, namely to hear Zuma’s understanding of our history and of the ANC’s philosophical framework. It’s not always easy to follow, but the broad themes will be familiar to anyone who was (or still is) a political progressive. Slavery, colonialism, apartheid and ongoing exclusion and disempowerment of Africans — it’s all there, and frankly it’s hard to rebut.

Personally I’d have preferred a bit more nuance — like something on the upside of modernity and the downside of primitivism — but surely no person of goodwill can argue against the following two propositions: First, that Africans have suffered sustained and unparalleled discrimination and privation; and second, that they have, in the main, shown extraordinary grace and forbearance (in their dealings with those who lorded it over them).

What’s incontrovertible is that, whatever their deepest convictions, Zuma and his predecessors have overseen a government that has been very (some would say overly) respectful of the free market. Even the much-complained-about labour laws were introduced in the 1980s under PW Botha, while our tax rates are squarely in line with the Washington Consensus. Despite its avowedly leftist leanings, the ANC has been exemplary in its economic stewardship; something its critics routinely overlook or de-emphasise.

When it comes to really forbidding presidential prospects, an undereducated bon vivant who rates loyalty above competence comes a distant third behind a zealous Marxist and a bitter Africanist. No?

I visited the ANC in Lusaka in 1989, when it was still very much a liberation movement rather than a government in waiting. My standout memories were of a dignified OR Tambo and a dazzling Thabo Mbeki — and also of a sweetly self-effacing story, or joke, told by Joe Slovo.

It was the day of liberation in Cuba and Fidel Castro was assembling his cabinet. "Who here is an economist?" asked the party leader, at which point revolutionary icon Guevara shot up his hand. "Okay comrade, then you’ll be our minister of finance". This comes to pass, and a fortnight later the two men meet again in the government offices. "Funny thing, Che", says the new president, "all that time in the jungle together and I had no idea you were an economist". "An economist?" replies Che. "I thought you asked which of us is a communist!".

I’ve no doubt that Zuma now knows that he lacks the education, the acumen and the all-round ability to do justice to his current position. He was a hard-working, cause-loyal, Zulu-speaking man, with strong struggle credentials and an affable manner, and that might well have seemed qualification enough when he took the job.

He probably thought it would be largely ceremonial, or managerial; not too different to that of chairing a subcommittee of the party, or an intelligence lekgotla. With some perks, of course.

He’s wiser now, and wounded, and I accordingly have little doubt that if he were offered a good ambassadorship, or a comfortable retirement — and immunity from prosecution — he’d willingly walk away tomorrow, "content that all I ever wanted to do was to serve my people". I actually believe him.

• Heneck is a Cape Town lawyer and businessman