Political pundits in America have this obsession with the first 100 days of a president. It is supposed to be the time in which a new president is at the height of his powers.
This is the window period in which “the most powerful man in the world” can bring about massive changes to his country on the back of an electoral victory in which both expectations and support are high.
Last Thursday US President Donald Trump reached that milestone.
So what did he achieve?
Known for his bluster and bombast, it was Trump who promised his followers the world in 100 days during his campaign speeches for the job.
He would “repeal and replace” the health care plan of the former president, cynically called Obamacare by its enemies.
Well that was a major flop abandoned, for now, because Trump could not amass enough votes from his own Republican Party members in the US congress.
He would build a gigantic wall to keep out immigrants from Mexico.
Well, that hardly started because there is no evidence that he would be able to raise the billions in dollars required to build the wall.
Nor would Mexico pay for it – a ridiculous demand he continues to make.
He would invoke new measures to keep “Islamic terrorists” out of America.
That too, went nowhere as one court after another blocked his proposed legislation for its various discriminatory elements.
Commentators agree that on most of his outrageous proposals, little has been achieved.
So what does a He-Man do to give the impression he is shaking up America?
He sits behind a polished desk with fawning suits behind him and signs one executive order after another in full sight on the invited media.
That must feel very manly when one’s impotence is on display in the complex politics of Washington.
“This job’s harder than I thought,” said the political novice who also conceded that “nobody knew health care is so complicated”.
That’s because an executive order is merely a statement of intent. It requires political support and must pass legislative muster.
It seems Obamacare is more popular than Trump, said the previous president in a rare comment on politics since he left office.
The polling data on Trump carries two messages. On the one hand, he has the lowest favourability ratings (42%) of any recent president at about the 100 day mark.
On the other hand, 96% of Trump voters said they would vote for him again regardless of what happened in the first 100 days.
Now how does one explain that? In the same way you explain the popularity of the South African president.
Both men are deeply unpopular among segments of the population. Yet both of them would be re-elected if voting were held today.
Why? Because their base of supporters is secure and it does not really matter what they say or do.
Populists win not by an appeal to facts but to the raw emotions of people with a grievance who have long given up on establishment politics to change their fates.
This is why the question on the March cover page of Time magazine is such an important one in today’s politics: “Is Truth Dead?”
For both Zuma and Trump the truth is whatever you make it to be. Even when the courts rule you out of order, you continue to act as if the judges are wrong and you are right.
And when you surround yourself with sycophants who normalise your troubled ethics, the truth is not only dead, it is buried.
The truth in such times is nothing but fake news produced by the liberal media and is replaceable by what a Trump spokeswoman called “alternative facts”.
In both contexts, the US and South Africa, truth is often a casualty of low levels of education.
Both men draw their core constituencies from citizens with little more than a school education.
What unethical leaders then do is to exploit their grievances, stir racial animosities against manufactured enemies (Mexicans and Muslims in the US or whites in South Africa) and make the truth as malleable as putty.
Whatever higher education does, it instills among its beneficiaries a sobering regard for truth – whether it be about climate change or credit ratings or constitutional values.
We know that educated people are less prone to the lies of charismatic politicians and more likely to demand leadership accountability.
Right now, the greatest threat to democracies is the death of truth.
In the long run, the resurrection of truth might depend on a well-educated populace.