PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s response to the open letter published by a group of concerned business leaders at the weekend was vintage Zuma. He "noted" the advertisement, which was placed in two Sunday newspapers by 33 businessmen, "welcomed" their inputs, reminded them that he had convened a "high-level dialogue" on the economy in October, and assured the signatories that the Presidency remained "open for discussions".
All the right noises, in other words. But past experience tells us little will come of it. As Business Day columnist and former ambassador and opposition politician Tony Leon mentioned on these pages earlier this week, Mr Zuma is a fantastic listener who exudes empathy. But that is all too often where it ends. US journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault summed it up: "It is said that (former president Thabo) Mbeki decides and never consults, while Zuma consults and never decides."
That, we have discovered in the past three years, is central to Mr Zuma’s political survival strategy. He cannot make the tough decisions because, having listened to everyone and assured them all he is on their side to gain their political support, he can’t risk offending any faction by contradicting himself. So the path of least resistance is to do nothing, or to say one thing and do another.
Contrast that with the response of African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who launched a characteristic broadside against the public stance adopted by such "mischievous" sectors of society as the business leaders, religious leaders and other civil society interest groups that have seen fit to provide the party with unsolicited advice ahead of its Mangaung elective conference. This "good cop, bad cop" act has worked well for the ANC over the years, but it has become a little transparent.
The ANC is fast running out of wiggle room; a time is approaching when the risks associated with focusing on political unity at the expense of concerted action will outweigh the dangers inherent in decisive governance. Mr Zuma is no doubt waiting until his second term is in the bag before acting, but if he is not careful, he may find his options have narrowed to the point at which he is a lame duck not by choice but because economic and social circumstances take the political choices out of his hands.
The nation’s conscience, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has seen the writing on the wall, and it is profoundly worrying that what he read moved him to tears of despair.