Final Word

Zuma lame duck presidency follows long tradition


 If President Jacob Zuma has become a lame duck president, he suffers from a condition that can even be suffered by the pope.

If true, he has become a member of a not all that an exclusive club of heads of state across the globe.

If he cannot find the personal means to pay for the non-security upgrades to his Nkandla residence, he might also become a lame duck in the most original use of the ‘lame duck’ proverb – a use that for all intents and purposes has fallen into total disuse.

Animal farm of finance

In our search for the origin of the ‘lame duck’ expression we discovered that it was not originally a political expression. The lame duck originally came from the world of finance, in 18th-century London Stock Exchange. It referred to a “stock-jobber or dealer who will not, or cannot, pay his losses” and has to “waddle out of the alley like a lame duck”. It could also refer to a defaulter on a loan.

The first known mention in writing of the term was made by Horace Walpole, in a letter of 1761 to Sir Horace Mann: "Do you know what a Bull and a Bear and Lame Duck are?"

In 1791 Mary Berry wrote of the Duchess of Devonshire’s loss of £50,000 in stocks, “the conversation of the town” was that her name was to be “posted up as a lame duck”.

On the ‘animal farm’ of stock exchanges we still find the ‘bulls’ when prices are on an upward trend and ‘bears’ when prices cool down and move the other way. But the ‘lame duck’, in stock trading context, seems to have become just about extinct.

Migration to world of politics

The ‘lame duck’ during the 19th century migrated to the world of politics where it seems to be thriving to this day, especially as a way to describe office bearers approaching the end of their tenure and for that reason effectively losing power/and or influence. As is the case at present with Mr Zuma there might also be additional reasons. 

The first known recorded use was in the American Congressional Globe (official record of the United States Congress) of 14 January 1863: “In no event ... could [the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politicians.”

Since then it has come into common use in democracies worldwide. In the US it is

traditionally used for presidents who are serving out the remainder of their term after having been defeated for re-election – as has happened to William Howard Taft, who was defeated for re-election in 1912; with Herbert Hoover, who was defeated for re-election in 1932; Gerald R. Ford defeated in 1976; Jimmy Carter, defeated for re-election in 1980 and George H. W. Bush, who was defeated for re-election in 1992.

The US also has a “lame duck period, being the period between (presidential and congressional) elections in November and the inauguration of officials early in the following year.

In Australia, regardless of when the election is held, the Senate (upper house) sits from the 1st of July following the election, to the 30th of June six years later, while the newly elected members of the House of Representatives (lower house) take their seats immediately after an election.

A Senate that is destined to lose its majority as a result of such a change is called a ‘lame-duck’ Senate and often attracts criticism if it blocks government measures introduced in the House of Representatives.

The lame pope

The ‘lame duck’ phenomenon is not restricted to the world of secular politics. It can even happen in the Vatican.

On February 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning within 17 days, he was called a lame-duck pope in certain of the media.

And, due to Pope John Paul II’s long and debilitating illness, some journalists described the final years of his reign as a lame-duck papacy.

In South Africa the lame duck situation of Mr Zuma, about which we wrote last week, was brought on not only because of the controversies he got himself involved in, but also because of the constitutional limit on the number of terms an individual can serve as president.

There are further complicating factors, like the non-synchronisation between elections for the ANC party leadership and the national elections.

by Piet Coetzer

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