Was Zuma wrong to congratulate Mugabe? Maybe not

I have known Clive Simpkins for longer than both of us would care to admit. Through the decades I’ve

Clive Simpkins - with his Speaker's Hall of Fame  award. Offers an alternative view of Jacob Zuma's reaction to the Zim Elections.
Clive Simpkins – with his Speaker’s Hall of Fame award. Offers an alternative view on Jacob Zuma’s reaction to the Zim Election result.

admired the courage of his forthright approach; his brilliant mind; and deep spirituality. The Good Lord surely broke the mould after making Clive. He has worked in the rarified atmosphere of New York and London, but chose to make his contribution at home in SA. One of the best strategic communications consultants on the planet, Clive is a brilliant keynote speaker and makes a living  advising large organisations. Helping them to get their communication ideas straight and help them work out processes where they stop putting feet in their mouths. I’ve leaned heavily on him over the years – as an expert contributor to radio shows and as a blogger. He has never disappointed. Neither does he in this, his debut blog for biznewz, in which Simpkins tackles the SA President’s reaction to the Zimbabwe election results – something I felt was ill considered. Clearly, Clive and I don’t always agree. But his fresh, often radically different way of looking at things, is usually right. And always thought provoking.

By Clive Simpkins*

It’s become almost impossible to discuss something in South Africa without it being polarised along racial lines. A recent  example of this is the Zimbabwean elections. Many whites, western media and whiny ex-Zimbos would prefer them to be categorised as “fraudlections”. And therein lies the rub.

Many black Africans, if social media is anything to go by, think that Robert Mugabe cocked a snook of note at the “imperialists,” who wish to control Zimbabwe, only to get their grubby paws on its significant natural resources.

The acknowledgement of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) itself, that some 305,000 voters were turned away from the polls, does little to convince die-hard Africanists that there was any significant flaw in the elections.  If one listens to MDC claims, that figure rises to 750,000. It’s claimed that the voters’ roll was not made available to the opposition. Searching an electronic voters’ roll would quickly have revealed the (evidently huge) number of people well over 100 years of age, or deceased voters, who had never been removed from the roll. All of this aside from the well-discussed issue of people, in the most literate country on our continent – being “assisted” to vote in polling booths. Factor in a shady Israeli firm as electoral advisors and you have ingredients worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

In Kenya in the early ’90s, the British government played a significant role in ensuring that Daniel arap Moi and his KANU party were returned to power via a flawed election, rather than risk civil upheaval. I suspect a similar sentiment may have driven “observers” in the Zim election to sigh and turn their attention elsewhere. Olusegun Obasanjo, former Nigerian president, was quoted as saying, “no election is perfect.”

An inarguable obstacle in modern-day communications is that a good percentage of black African people interpret white commentary on black issues as inherently illegitimate, biased or racist. The race card is tattered, through overuse in our country, by whites as well.

My long-held view is that the ANC’s inability to divorce criticism from disloyalty, is a progress-inhibiting flaw. Ditto in the African political arena. The criticism-disloyalty perception stifles dissent. So what then, of the African Union applauding the Zim elections? And president Zuma’s message to Robert Mugabe? In which he described the elections as “harmonised” and extended his “profound congratulations” on the outcome?  What it tells us, is that expediency, as in too many places around the world, has become the order of the day. The line of least resistance is an anaesthetic, that eases issues comfortably along. So we can get on, in our attention deficit-disordered manner, with the next issue at hand.

Is there any point in suggesting how president Zuma might otherwise have responded to the Zim elections? He and many other African politicians are clearly terrified of Mugabe. Seriously. I recall Mugabe looking directly into a video camera during a pre-AU summit interview. He wagged his finger and said, “those of you who wish to point a finger at me…remember, I can point a finger at you, too.”

That may not be verbatim but it sure is the gist. Survival-skilled politicians around the globe, engage in what is referred to on “black twitter,” as “polotricks”. That coined word illustrates exactly why Mr Zuma could not have said other than what he did. He is a survivor. He was not the ANC’s head of counter-intelligence, whilst in exile, for nothing. He is a wily, manipulative and extremely adept politician. He’s got the same sinister gift as Mugabe. He’s able to wrong-foot opponents and marginalise them, in the blink of an eye.

We may not like it, but given the almost universally rotten state of global politics, one has to concede that Zuma has political nous in bucket loads. Like Mugabe, he is able to appeal to the masses. Who respond to food parcels, social grants or the odd handing over of a matchbox RDP house with ululation, dancing and adulation. Zuma needs no extrication from, or help with, his comments on Zim. He’s simply done it the way that he knows works best in Africa.

In conclusion, from memory, a little story. Steve Biko and Donald Woods (then editor of the East London Daily Dispatch) were once having a conversation. Woods was nattering on about something, and Biko responded, “You live in an African country. Why are you applying Eurocentric rules and norms to it?” If we would find any peace of mind, we may have to take Biko’s advice.

* Clive Simpkins is a marketing and communications strategist, author of three books, a prodigious user of twitter (@clivesimpkins) and a sought after keynote speaker.