Zuma and Malema – One-on-One Leadership

During a two and a half hour in depth conversation with me recently, Julius Malema made the following statement: “I was elected last year in June, after serving the first three years. There’s never been an interaction between me and President Zuma, just the two of us, for almost four years, on this or that issue, except one day when he called me about Zimbabwe and that journalist. That was the only time.

Other than that there has never been any interaction and we have now been removed from the organization.” If this were true, that President Zuma never managed to develop a one-on-one connection with Julius Malema through regular and formal, confidential and personal sessions in the past four years, it would be, in my view a leadership scandal of note.

The President’s office was asked for a formal response to this allegation, but we received none. Though the leadership scandal could be the absence of one-on-one sessions between the President and the Youth League leader, we know it is at least the inability of the President, and perhaps Malema, to develop that one-on-one relationship for the good of us all. In this specific case the President would have to take responsibility for the larger portion of the blame, but of course Malema would not be totally innocent.

Of course reasons for this lack of connection between two important leaders may vary, and one can but speculate. Whatever these are, for the President of South Africa to not succeed at connecting with the President of the ANC Youth League on a one-on-one level is a serious error in judgment. Having interviewed and analyzed President Zuma as a leader, though like all leaders he has weaknesses, he is a relationship and people’s person, so one struggles to understand how he did not achieve this.

Malema has a reputation of note and most readers of this article will have negative and positive perceptions about him, mostly formed from a distance. Having sat with him for so long and probing his thoughts, views and feelings from many angles I assure readers that he is sharp, streetwise, and charismatic and well ahead of his age of 31. Both the President and Deputy President indicated they see the potential in him, and so have leaders like Winnie Mandela. Imagine the possibilities if a dynamic, sharp and talented leader like Malema had been coached, mentored and guided by a seasoned leader, with authentic interest, over the past four years? But where did it go wrong? More comments by Malema offer a broader though one-sided perspective.

Malema was adamant that “Zuma is not presidential material! I think we made a terrible mistake. We robbed this country. We had to force him through the throat of people, including with immediate family members who did not want to hear anything. The only thing we liked about him was the courage to stand up against President Mbeki’s third term. Other than that, what else would one regard as a positive contribution. There is nothing Pres Zuma is going to offer this country, now or in the future, except singing – he sings beautifully.”

When asked why he backs Motlanthe rather than Zuma, he denied that he had done so and responded as follows: “I have always said the ANC branches should be given that space to express themselves in terms of who should be the President of the ANC. But, one thing I know is that I do not want to see President Zuma re-elected. If we want a continuity of this institutionalized mediocrity, lack of coherence, lack of clear direction on where the country is going, a President that comes with a lot of personal burden to the movement, until 2019, the ANC must elect him in December”.

This attitude is a huge shift from being willing to “kill” for Zuma to openly expressing such absolute disregard for him. Malema simply feels “we got to know the real person. When President Zuma got elected in Polokwane, I was there. President Mbeki read his political input and gave an account of where we come from, what we have achieved, and so on. It was well written, well read.” But then President Zuma was elected and had to read his speech. Malema explains further: “There was a point where he got stuck for a minute or so. I got a shock of my life! Something inside me told me we had done something different. From what we had to what we were receiving at the time, it was so bad, the acceptance speech. I went to Malusi Gigaba and asked why they did not make a contribution and assist him? He said he was not involved.”

From that day onward Malema is convinced President Zuma worsened. He comments on NEC meetings: “In meetings, his political overview was flat. With all these expectations I had, what I remember him saying over and over for the past four years was that people are gossiping. He would comment that the information came to him about gossiping going on. Every two months we hear that – gossiping about him. We had to live in fear, not knowing what information he had. There was never any analysis of the state we are at, in terms of the revolution, whether it is on course, what our challenges are, what are the balance of forces, where to from here? He would not comment on the implications of the global economic crises, or recently the Eurozone. No proper analysis about the attack on Libya, or what is happening in Syria, just no international perspective”.

Malema believes that leaders within the ANC have to work tirelessly to “remove him and save the ANC from him, because the ANC will be out of power very soon. It might not be in 2014, but I can tell you, with my own predictions, we will not get more than 50% in 2014, with all his weaknesses”. He is clear that President Zuma knows this because he speaks up against those that damage the ANC and he often expresses a desire for leaders that are ideologically grounded. But, Malema adds that “all those things he wants, he himself does not fit into any of those things. He can’t tell us about corruption. He is not in a better position to educate anybody about corruption. He just remains in power because he is scared of prison. His advisors told him that for as long as you are the President you can manage the process of this arms deal investigation and possible prosecution against you. We know there are no reasons why President Zuma’s case was dropped? Where are the tapes they were talking about? All this makes him want to stay in power. It is not because he is so passionate to change our lives. It is about defending himself”.

Supposing this is all true, or partially true, the impact on leading effectively is huge, of course. In Malema’s own words he says: “You can’t be a leader who wants to serve himself and not the people. This is not what we are looking for”. This may be true, but the challenge with making such utterances is that the one making them will be measured by the same standard. So, Malema is bold in expressing his views, but the knife will cut both ways and his behaviour will continually be under the same spotlight to see whether he himself lives up to these standards.

These views give insight into why his attitude regarding the President changed, almost from day one.  

As far as Deputy President Motlanthe is concerned Malema had this to say: “Actually I have met the Deputy President many times. I have a relationship with him from a long time ago. When we are in trouble he is the only person that would call just to talk. It is a healing process when some elder gives you an ear to listen. He is one comrade who does listen; who does give us the necessary inputs, in terms of how we need to conduct ourselves”.

One of the leadership lessons all leaders need to learn from the Zuma / Malema saga is the importance of building one-on-one connections and relationships with those we lead, especially those closest to us, such as direct reports. The downfall of so many leaders, especially where there was dissent in the ranks, can or could be traced to the absence of sound, open and trustworthy one- on-one relationships. A leader should somehow connect with most followers, but especially with direct reports. This is why the size of our Cabinet is a concern as it is almost impossible for a busy President to truly connect with all Ministers and possibly Deputy Ministers. One could appropriately ask what former President Mbeki’s relationship with his direct reports was like? President Zuma’s failure to have applied this principle with Malema is still haunting him and the damage may end up being incalculable. 

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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