IT MUST be difficult for President Jacob Zuma, who routinely rolls out the alliance hierarchy to lecture South Africans about how they should respect the president, to be met with scorn and disdain, which simply fuels his resentment. It is a vicious circle of desperation that tells you much about a man who is constantly pleading for more respect. It’s kind of pitiful.

Zuma is a demagogue. He is at his zenith in front of a mob, mixing metaphor and anecdote with raw emotion and an appeal to tradition or prejudice to stir up popular sentiment. But he is not a considered thinker, and it irks him no end that he consistently fails to engender respect among the country’s intellectuals, who often regard him as something of a joke.

In fact, it’s an attitude typical of a bully: not content with an authoritarian response to dissent, with threats and intimidating innuendo, what the bully ultimately craves is affirmation. Only he has no real idea how to attain it. And so, what the bully cannot obtain authentically, he will enforce. It is no surprise those closest to Zuma have thus suggested the possibility of legislating for presidential respect.

One of my favourite quotes on this subject is from South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, who told a radio caller last year, in trying to explain that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "respect" demanded that it be earned: "No, I don’t know where you take that, I don’t agree with your dictionary, I am sorry. It’s your own dictionary. You respect a person whether you agree with him or not….

"No, no, no, don’t come and quote the Oxford English Dictionary, I’m sorry, because that is precisely the issue I am fighting. This kind of imposition of certain cultural values at the complete disregard of the cultural values of the overwhelming majority of the people in this country, that’s my issue."

This, of course, gives the game away. As far as Zuma and his supporters are concerned, respect is not a consequence of one’s actions, and thus reliant on one’s conduct, but a right due to one regardless of how one behaves. For Zuma, respect is a cultural privilege to which he is entitled not by virtue of his behaviour but because of his position.

There is, of course, another word for that: deference.

Deference is what a king would demand of his subjects — a kind of unthinking obsequiousness. More importantly, if one is deferential to a person, that attitude bears no resemblance to his or her conduct. It can be demanded and, if not demonstrated, can be accompanied by consequence (which is exactly what the proposed law would achieve).

It is more evidence of the "big chief" syndrome that defines so much of Zuma’s administration. The chief must have a big house (Nkandla), be able to dispense patronage (Guptas) and be revered (respected).

In Zuma’s world, "respect" is merely a palatable democratic euphemism for a kind of submissiveness or servility.

It is a useful political idea too, because it removes from the president any responsibility for his deeds. It doesn’t matter how Zuma behaves; if "respect" is his by right, it affords him the space to say or do whatever he wants and people would have "respect" for him regardless. The onus is not on Zuma to be fit for the office of president, but on the public to have an attitude "fit for Zuma". So it is self-delusional too.

The cruel truth is that, even if the African National Congress (ANC) did pass such a law, it wouldn’t actually change people’s attitudes. All it would do is force those who were critical of the president to pretend they admired him, for fear of repercussion if they did not. It is just like the school-ground bully who rewards those who are sycophantic near him by not beating them up, but pounces on those who stand their ground, thereby engendering a fear he is quite happy to see as a kind of respect.

Underpinning it all is low self-esteem. Only those who are deeply insecure in their own abilities and suffer from sustained self-doubt demand respect and threaten consequences if it is not forthcoming. They have done the maths and concluded they are something of a fraud and, unable to earn the admiration of others, they seek to enforce it.

The ironic flip side of that is, because the bully does not understand respect himself, he is fairly incapable of demonstrating it to others. So Zuma will regularly belittle or patronise opposition leaders in Parliament, the legal fraternity and the cultural sphere — or any opponent to his particular world view.

Thank goodness for the constitution. It acts to curtail Zuma’s baser instincts. If he had his way, we would long since have encroached on the right to freedom of expression. It is remarkable how often low self-esteem is complemented by an inflated but fragile ego. It is the natural response of a low public standing. Zuma would happily amend a universal constitutional right, designed to serve and protect every South African citizen, merely to protect his own reputation.

I doubt the ANC will ever introduce a law to entrench presidential respect; if it did, the Constitutional Court would surely strike it down. The proposal does tell you, however, much about the character of the man: a desperately insecure demagogue who suffers a diminishing reputation and is willing to entertain any unconstitutional action that will safeguard him from further criticism.