Mpumelelo Mkhabela

The rise and fall of Zuma the Invincible

2017-06-23 10:45

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Shortly after his dismissal as deputy president of the country in June 2005, Jacob Zuma looked like he had lost weight quickly. His suit was wobbly on his frame.

The collar of his shirt appeared far detached from his neck. The facial wrinkles that signified the years gone by were stretching markedly. Dejected, the man was weeping from within.

I watched him take the podium to address the first press conference as former deputy president in Cape Town. As if to rub salt into Zuma’s fresh wounds, one senior journalist asked a question along these lines: “Now that you are out of a job, how are you going to live?”

The question was rough for someone who had no formal qualifications or discernible industry skill and was literally unemployable. Even his past experience as a senior intelligence official of the ANC was more likely unusable in the modern age that require intelligence officers to have the ability to write intelligibly and understand basic arithmetic.

Age was not on his side either. Yet, he was still growing a family that needed financial support. And like many of his comrades, Zuma had spent many years on Robben Island and in exile. But, unlike many others who were also jailed and exiled, Zuma was never stung by the bug that drove others to seek certificated knowledge. He still prides himself as self-educated man.

He made it clear at that press conference that he would fight to clear his name. The judgement that found Zuma’s financial advisor Schabir Shaik guilty of, among other things, bribing Zuma, was devastating. Any president who was concerned about the integrity of his Cabinet would have fired Zuma.

But Zuma’s sad circumstances and growing impatience with President Thabo Mbeki’s leadership style and some policies of his administration combined to form a potent tool for Zuma to relaunch himself. Victimhood would be his currency. Mbeki would be the bogeyman.

Mbeki’s political enemies – and there were many – would be his friends. KwaZulu-Natal regional loyalties would form the most powerful and dependable political base. The ANC’s alliance partners, Cosatu and the SACP, who had had enough of Mbeki’s so-called neoliberal policies would provide the platform for the Zuma “reloaded” mission. 

While Mbeki was busy running around the world preaching about the African Renaissance, the coalition of the wounded at home was plotting Zuma’s renaissance. The coalition was quite formidable. It boasted the likes of Zwelinzima Vavi, Blade Nzimande, Matthews Phosa and Julius Malema.

They were among many vocal advocates of a supposedly new dawn spearheaded by Zuma. They were not prepared to reason with anyone who had a different view: Mbeki was behind the plot to get rid of Zuma to influence leadership succession in the ANC, full stop.

The spy tapes would later emerge as “enough proof” that the 783 charges were politically motivated. Mshini wam reverberated across the country. Zuma’s victory in Polokwane was followed by the removal of Mbeki who, in Zuma’s words, no longer enjoyed the confidence of the people of South Africa.

The coalition of the wounded, now turned victors, campaigned to have the charges against him dropped. The spy tapes gave the National Prosecuting Authority, under the leadership of acting national director Mokotedi Mpshe, a nice excuse to drop the charges.

Zuma’s ascendance was now coupled with the development of a myth of invincibility around him.

Some other notable myths and expectations that emerged were: you don’t need an education to be a good leader; Zuma will deliver to the poor better because he is poor; Zuma will advocate policies of the Left; Zuma will use power responsibly because he sweat to get to the highest office; Zuma’s administration will be caring because he is an affable and consultative leader; Zuma will not be corrupt because he has learned his lessons from the Shaik experience; the centralisation of power in the presidency will stop and Luthuli House would regain its position as a strategic centre of power.

The rape trial added to the myth of his invincibility. Zuma developed a personality cult.

Once he had taken over government, stories of his arrogance began to emerge from Luthuli House. The consultative character in him was dying. He was an impatient, intemperate leader who wanted his way. The left-leaning policies were not forthcoming. On the home front, however, business was booming among his family members. Many of them suddenly discovered their entrepreneurial flair.

In no time, Zuma had set up a system through which he would direct state resources to family and friends. The Guptas had found a willing partner in new crime. The lessons from the Shaik trial were thrown out of the window. In fact, what ensued made the Shaik bribery crime look like experiential training.

The looting party began. In government, Zuma did everything he could to undo the legacies of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The rule of law became an irritation. South Africa’s standing in international relations hit rock bottom. And respectability of government declined.

In the process of transforming the government and his party into his own image, he shed all his key Polokwane and immediate post-Polokwane allies. His strategy to create new ones through a patron-client governance system caused instability in government.

Critical state institutions such as the SAPS, NPA and SARS were hit by one crisis after another, mostly caused by Zuma and his allies. The crises suited Zuma and his allies. In addition to having the biggest Cabinet in the history of the country, Zuma’s rate of reshuffling was the highest.

With incontrovertible evidence now in the public domain that Zuma illegally co-governs South Africa with the Guptas, he has brought the democratic project into disrepute. His defence strategies include threatening his critics, stalling cases in court, lying, mocking and, where he deems fit, giggling.

Under his leadership, the government’s legal bill is at an all-time high as he and the state lose case after case in court. He has been exposed for his lack of understanding of the most basic provisions of the Constitution.

Unlike his predecessors, he has faced calls for him to quit from inside the ANC, among opposition parties in Parliament and ordinary people who have on numerous occasions took to the streets.

The credit downgrades, skyrocketing unemployment, rampant corruption and general degeneration of ethical conduct and lack of accountability have been among the defining features of his presidency.

The Constitutional Court’s secret ballot judgement is the latest cord that has been pulled as part of the complex net that is closing in on him. He now faces prospects of a vote of no confidence in Parliament. He might survive it.

But the secret ballot judgement which was triggered by the dismissal of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, provides a clue of how the court might approach the impeachment judgement that is still pending. The Constitutional Court will hear arguments on impeachment before the end of the year based on Parliament’s failure to discipline Zuma for his Nkandla crimes.

If granted, impeachment proceedings will unfold in Parliament where he will be dragged to testify about his role in a whole range of scandals. There is also the 783 matter that will more likely be decided by the Supreme Court of Appeal before the end of the year and more likely by the Constitutional Court early next year if there is an appeal.

It is almost a forgone conclusion that should his ANC faction lose in the December conference, he will be recalled. But should his faction win, which is highly likely because theirs is a matter of victory or jail, the ANC faces possible defeat in the 2019 elections. The investigation into treason and corruption charges arising out of the #GuptaLeaks and other related evidence will be the killer punch after he has left office.

Whatever the political and legal processes that will unfold in the next few weeks or months or years, and regardless of whether Zuma finishes his term of office or escapes to Dubai, he will leave behind a disgraceful legacy.

In the end, he’ll cut a lonely, dejected figure far worse than the one I saw in 2005.  For now, he is busy writing the final chapters of his own misery.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

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Read more on:    thabo mbeki  |  jacob zuma  |  anc
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