Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma has made many and various calls for patriotism. These have been problematic for a number of reasons, mostly because they have been used primarily in reference to those institutions that naturally generate criticism — the press, universities, the opposition and so forth.

Criticism can be a very particular form of patriotism, born of a desire to improve or to get closer to the truth, which benefits everyone. That the president suggests these institutions in particular should be more "patriotic" gives the game away. Patriotism, in his understanding of the idea, is unquestioning deference. In truth, it’s not patriotism he is describing but obsequious political loyalty.

That’s as far as the principle goes.

There is, however, another more pragmatic problem: an important element of patriotism is pride — a belief in an ideal or contemporary reality.

When the reality is a mess, patriotism naturally evokes the ideal; when the reality embodies the ideal, the two are evoked in unison, a doubly powerful illustration of national achievement.

But, when both the reality and the ideal are compromised, what then? From where does the idea draw its power?

Nationalism is rife in SA. It flows far more easily than any other ideology through our political veins. Thus, it is worth asking what role pride plays in SA today and whether Zuma has applied his mind to what it is he is requiring of his fellow citizen.

What is there, exactly, to be proud of?

No doubt there are things, relatively small victories and triumphs here and there, but more fundamentally, what grand achievements are there we can point to?

The new SA is itself a grand feat. But it doesn’t appear to be in a healthy condition. And it still has a few fundamental tests to pass — a change in national power for example.

Like so many things in SA, pride is a hope more than a reality. The country survives like this, by clinging to abstractions and gorging itself on a rare success when, on occasion, it stumbles upon it.

People are patriotic about an imagined SA, not the real one. Healthy patriotism requires the ideal and the reality, each one reinforcing the other. Instead, we seem to live out some kind of a dream, one from which you dare not wake up.

It is little wonder "good news" is so central to the African National Congress (ANC) political narrative. Without it, there is little to be patriotic about. Good news, the party would have you believe, is the foundation on which any sense of national pride rests and it insists the stuff is everywhere.

It’s not, though.

The ANC can claim it’s all part of an antirevolutionary agenda and, again and again, turn to 1994 as a comparative point of reference in a desperate attempt to suggest, relatively, progress is ubiquitous. But that particular well is fast running dry.

Time works against the ANC. Through a macro lens, viewed over decades, the demand for a better life is becoming less relative and more immediate. Anger and frustration, not pride and patriotism, are the accompanying emotions.

Why is it Zuma’s recent remark that the ANC "comes first" was met with such hostility? Much of the reason was unarticulated. At face value the sentiment is outlandish but there is much to be read into it if you use patriotism as the context.

What could be more of an affront to the idea than to suggest that one political party precedes the overarching ideal; or, indeed, as Zuma has stated before, that the ANC comes before the Constitution — the tangible embodiment of South Africanism? You have to give it to the president; he has little fear of contradiction.

This kind of confusion is nothing new to Zuma or the ANC. Zuma has described government as "the daughter of the ANC" and, whenever he is ridiculed or mocked, the ANC suggests it is "the Office of the President" that is really under assault.

But that office is an abstraction. The values and principles it represents are an ideal towards which the incumbent aspires. He or she does not automatically become the ideal on taking office.

Indeed, it is against those values that his or her performance is gauged. Hence the question: "Is this person fit to be president?" The same principle applies to government more generally.

But from behind the ANC’s political spectacles the world appears a very different place. The South African ideal is the ANC, and vice versa. Patriotism is not the belief in some free-floating apolitical ideal, it is the ANC’s political programme and belief in, support for and demonstrable adherence to its agenda.

It is a deeply problematic political culture. Healthy patriotism is apolitical. True, an individual or party can embody the dream but it is a temporary situation. People are rightfully proud when that happens but it is transient. If power corrupts, always the test is applied: will this person still stand tall tomorrow, as they do today? That is not offensive. It is the price one pays for wielding influence and power — relentlessly to be held to an ideal standard.

The various versions of the South African dream, best illustrated by the feel-good idea of "the rainbow nation", have had a sledgehammer taken to them in recent years.

They are fractured and broken, and few can agree on what the ideal should look like anymore. There is the Constitution of course, the cornerstone on which our fragile illusions rest but even that document, we are increasingly told today, was a sell-out, that it did more harm than good.

Pride, such as it is, is really used as an anecdote for low self-esteem. It is affirmation, not celebration; deference not criticism; anger not passion.

The thing president Jacob Zuma doesn’t get is that he is himself a powerful source not of pride, but shame and embarrassment. He is no more able to best represent an ideal than he is able to illustrate a real-life example of it in action. He does not sell national pride, he forces upon his audience disgrace and ignominy. Regardless, how desperately he wants to patted on the back and congratulated.

But all this is lost on the president, as they are on so many members of the executive. The self-contained vicious circle that is the ANC’s own logic means pride is hardwired into your station and not something external to you.

It might well be that in his own internal universe the all- powerful hive mind on whose behalf he speaks imbues in him all those historical virtues he is so quick to allude to. It is not how he is perceived. His words and actions have a life of their own.

A mature political party and leader realises that pride is a national asset, not party-political property. To fully embody it, one must accept that there are things in society that speak to it; things not born of only one party. Criticism is just one element of that. It is counterintuitive for any political party to celebrate it, especially when it comes at that party’s expense, but it is nonnegotiable part of a modern democratic order — a source of pride.

The ANC will never understand patriotism in the best sense of the word. It is incompatible with the party’s world view. It won’t understand this not just because it can’t properly appreciate the value of criticism, but, more than that, because it has no sense of pride.

The flip side of that coin is that it has no sense of shame either.