In my previous life as a South African political analyst, I would spend long hours on the telephone to a ‘political risk analyst’ in New York, working for a major international investment advisory group. The conversations were not always easy, and much of my time was spent rebutting base assumptions that South Africa was the incarnation of the North’s flawed understanding and projection of ‘Big Man’ politics and ‘clientalism’ in West Africa.
Sample questions would include “Is he a Zulu?” or “Is he from KZN? [KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province]” with regard to anyone associated with Jacob Zuma, and complete incomprehension with regard to the nuanced machinations–however flawed–of the ruling tripartite alliance. I was constantly asked to divine the outcomes of leadership squabbles, business deals, and court cases, because–naturally–the tea-leaves of African ethnicity, patronage, and inter-connected corrupt activities trumped the irritations of independent institutions, profit motive, and constitutional democracy.
Such blind clichés, projections and stereotypes mark an outrageous piece of parachute journalism masquerading as analysis published on Foreign Policy’s website this week. It is written by Karen Leigh, Time Magazine’s correspondent for West Africa.
The crux of the piece focuses on Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet reshuffle and concurrent dismissal of two cabinet ministers and the National Police Commissioner, and the suspension of Julius Malema from the structures of the African National Congress (ANC). That the former was the direct result of reports submitted to the President of the Republic by the Office of the Public Protector–a Constitutionally defined and mandated body–and the latter, the result of a decision by the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee– a body the President of the party does not sit on–appears to elude the author entirely.
Instead the readers of FP are subjected to a speculative, and ill-informed representation of a Zuma bent on “revenge” and “fighting tooth and nail against an angry opposition,” in a government characterized by “notorious corruption” and “gross incompetence”. While it would be naïve to argue that Zuma’s leadership of South Africa’s economy, state apparatus, and the ANC, has been rosy, even this blog–a consistent critic of Zuma–would shuffle its feet in embarrassment at such black and white analysis.
That it is parachute journalism is evident from a quick scan of the article: Karen Leigh appears to have fathomed the deep complexities of the ANC, it’s trajectory, and the state of South African governance through her reading of one opinion poll, some statements on a blog by Helen Zille (the leader of the opposition) who possesses no special access to the inner workings of the ANC than the average citizen, another actual South African (David Lewis – the former head of the Competition Tribunal, and now head of an anti-corruption watchdog loosely associated with COSATU), and a Chatham House, London-based scholar (Thomas Cargill). She strangely could not find any black opinion makers or analysts to speak to. Or if she did, none said anything she deemed newsworthy.
Apparently this is enough to get published in a relatively well regarded American publication on international affairs, and Time Magazine.
She did speak to another Saffer: a “South African businessman” who drove her back to the airport. “It’s a good day to be getting out of Jo’burg”, he said. Perhaps, he just wanted to see the back of her.