President Jacob Zuma at the University of Free State. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
One can damn President Jacob Zuma as inept, but acknowledge his shrewdness. Criticism and compliment have never worked so well together. It avoids, however, an honest conversation about his intelligence. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

IS IT possible to have a calm and rational conversation about President Jacob Zuma’s intelligence? Let’s find out. In an ideal world, a country’s president and commander in chief would be a person of some intellectual fortitude.

Not necessarily a pure intellectual — intellectualism often lends itself to idealism and politics is the art of the possible, as the saying goes — but clever: able to understand the complexities of any democratic system and the global political economy in which they operate.

More often than not, however, politics rewards politics itself, more than it does ideas. There are exceptions — those rare leaders effortlessly able to merge ideal and compromise — but for the most part, it’s about power, and those best able to manipulate it tend to get furthest.

It is widely acknowledged that Zuma is a past master of harnessing power. His record in office is dismal, but his political control of that office superb, however messy and frustrating it might appear to the public. He expertly uses patronage, uncertainty and loyalty to his advantage. Any discussion about his intellect inevitably offers up this counterposition to the doubts that routinely do the rounds: Zuma is a streetfighter; he might not win an argument, but he wins — one way or another.

In a country rife with political correctness and low self-esteem in equal measure, this is a helpful get-out clause for many commentators. One can damn Zuma as inept, but acknowledge his shrewdness. Criticism and compliment, albeit backhanded, have never worked so well together.

It avoids, however, an honest conversation about his intelligence in and of itself. And, if you agree it is a fair and reasonable expectation that the president be able not just to understand the intricacies of modern democracy, but through insight, discernment and comprehension, is best able to navigate them, it is likewise fair and reasonable to ask to what degree Zuma fits the bill.

His strong personal convictions blur the line. So much of the trouble he gets into is on the basis of his beliefs or values, rather than an error of fact or an obvious misunderstanding.

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IT MIGHT seem silly or abhorrent to many to suggest women should bow before men as a sign of respect or that African National Congress (ANC) membership cards open the pearly gates, but the world is full of cultural and religious craziness.

More than 40% of Americans believe in unidentified flying objects.

"He may be the president," Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said of Zuma’s suggestion that women should marry and procreate, "but we all say dumb things".

Enough of these kinds of antiquated ideas paint a picture, an important one. Identity-related issues are touchstones in SA and values matter a great deal in politics. Nevertheless, while indiscretion can be evidence of poor judgment, it does not necessarily speak to hard intelligence.

There is the language barrier, a ubiquitous enemy of the president’s intellectual reputation and no fault of his own. He stumbles over numbers and, particularly when speaking off the cuff, sacrifices much in terms of conveying subtlety or ambiguity — vital tools in any politician’s rhetorical armour. Often a carefully chosen adjective is the difference between absolutism and error or couched comment and insight. Again, this is not necessarily a helpful measure.

To gauge a person’s intellect fully, one must look at comprehension — the ability to understand ideas, explain and generate meaningful responses to them.

You would be surprised how little evidence there is on the public record for Zuma’s failings in this regard.

Recently, he suggested Africa is the biggest continent in the world. Outside of his beliefs, values and poor English, it is a rare example of him saying something palpably factually incorrect. Rare, of course, is a relative term. Zuma says a thousand things a day and there is no shortage of other examples. He has stated that the courts should prosecute criminal suspects, "even when there are facts that are short"; that those in the majority enjoy more rights and "you have fewer rights because you are in the minority", and that monarchies are equivalent to democracies, "just as democracy is for the people by the people".

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THESE are categorical errors, profound for a constitutional head of state charged with protecting and promoting a human rights-based democratic order.

Ironically, the courts provide much further evidence of Zuma’s limitations. "The minister and the president both made material errors of fact and law," the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in finding that Zuma had failed properly to apply his mind to the appointment of Menzi Simelane as director of public prosecutions.

It is in the complexity of policy that his greatest confusions are to be found. Zuma’s disdain for intellectualism is also well-documented. Nkandla, he says, is an issue only "with bright people, the clever people". And of black South Africans he believes have abandoned traditional African values in favour of modernity, he famously sneered they had "become too clever". They are euphemisms, but telling nonetheless.

Scepticism, that hallmark of rational discourse, is another great source of hostility for Zuma. Universities must produce "patriotic" intellectuals, we are told — people who promote and not interrogate the ANC’s political programme. The media should practise "patriotic reporting", hiding facts, which is what he claims they do in Mexico for the sake of national pride and esteem.

"Counterrevolutionary" is the latest such slur in this repertoire, applied to opposition criticism. The president does not seek to engender a questioning environment, but a supine one.

Two other factors are worth considering. First, the people with whom Zuma surrounds himself. The ANC and the executive have been stripped of thinkers on Zuma’s watch. His appointments are consistently marred or overturned on the basis of poor qualifications and, generally, there is a dumbing down of the national leadership.

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SECOND, what he does not say is often revealing. He has, in interviews and speeches, developed a kind of generic language all of his own, devoid of specificity, evidence or subtlety. Platitudes are a safe haven as they negate critical interrogation.

The hard truth is that SA has a president way out of his intellectual depth, and his antiquated personal values are not just at odds with many basic democratic fundamentals, but he appears to be unable properly to understand them. He is hostile towards criticism and disdainful of independent thought. And yet, for all that, his shortcomings on this front are often alluded to rather than blatantly identified. Zuma cannot be blamed for any of it. His party elected him.

And that, perhaps, is the lesson in all of this. Zuma is in many respects the product of SA’s value system. Intelligence is not something we value greatly. It is the price one pays for an obsession with identity politics. The president would experience a far more torrid time were public knowledge of policy more sophisticated.

You can survive in politics, anywhere in the world, with the right advisers and advice. What makes Zuma different is that he seems to survive without even that. And not just without it, but with disdain for the very idea.