President of South Africa; struggle veteran; trial veteran; husband of many; father of more; charmer, womaniser; appalling role mode; political appeaser; the Nero of South Africa?
They say that Jacob Zuma is a deeply charming man. He is personable, amusing, and really does have the common touch. He is able to reach across great yawning chasm of class, race, education and upbringing to make pretty much anyone, of any background, feel at ease, be they white businessmen or foreign dignitaries. And yet, in the history of South Africa, there has probably not been a man more of the people than Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.
JZ, as he probably doesn’t mind being known, was born on the 12th April 2942 in Nkandla, deep in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Nkandla is at the heart of Zulu history and culture, and the Warhol-green hills roll into the heat haze seemingly forever, accompanied by the shrill of grasshoppers driven frenzied in the intense heat of a Zululand summer.
Of course, Zuma’s childhood was not as idyllic as his surrounds might have suggested. His father, a policemen, died when he was young, leaving his mother to commute to the suburbs of Durban, where she was a domestic worker. Money was scarce and the young Jacob received no formal schooling at all. As he later described it: “There was no chance of me getting educated. I wanted to be a teacher, a priest or a lawyer but all I could do was to try and get other children to show me what they learnt at school. By the age of 15, he was doing odd jobs in order to help his mother keep the family in one piece.
Inspired by trade-unionist family members, Zuma signed up with the ANC two years later, and joined its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1962. He was arrested the following year, along with forty odd other young MK men, and was convicted for treason at just 21 years old. Zuma was sentenced to spend 10 years – the rest of his twenties – on Robben Island together with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. His future path had been defined, and he would go on to play an important role in the struggle for liberation, fleeing to Swaziland in 1975 (where he first met Thabo Mbeki), being elected a member of the ANC National Executive Committee in 1977, and being appointed Chief Representative of the ANC in Mozambique in 1984. He was forced out of the country in 1987, relocating to the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, where he played a crucial and defining role as head of the organisation’s counterintelligence. As ANC spy chief until the early 1990’s, his was a position of considerable power, and he would have been privy to information that likely served him well in the years to come.
So this is the context that must be taken into account when the role of Jacob Zuma considered in the recent and future political landscape of South Africa. Among all the controversy and embarrassment he was wrought on the nation, herein lays, if not the excuse, the explanation for much of it.
There can be little objective doubt that Jacob Zuma’s lust for the presidency – though he always claimed he was simple following ANC wished for him to assume the role – has been massively damaging to South Africa’s institutions and to South African democracy. And id divided the nation like nothing has since 1994.
“We have seen enough of this man to conclude that he considers himself untouchable; not by any sense of shame or contrition, not by the African National Congress’s code of conduct; and certainly not by a big disease with a little name” - Jacob Dlamini,
“He is a spendthrift and scrounger who writes rubber cheques and forges sleazy relationships with crooked businessmen willing to bankroll his appetite for the good life he cannot afford.” - Drew Forrest.
There were certainly some speed humps along the way, most famously his on-off corruption trial, which revealed how an obsequious, oily little man by the name of Schabir Shaik has entered into a ‘mutually beneficial symbiosis’ with him after his returning from exile. Shaik was eventually convicted and sent to jail for, among other things, bribing Zuma and the corollary logic concluded that Zuma would follow suit for accepting these proven bribes. It was just one of many allegations against ANC politicians to do with the notorious arms deal – there remains a widely held belief that many more should have been, or should still be charged – but the facts were damning and incontrovertible in this case. Money has largely changed hands: Zuma had sold out his country.
In relieving Zuma of his position as deputy president of South Africa shortly after the conclusion of the Shaik trial, Thabo Mbeki had this to say: “’In the interest of the honourable Deputy President, the government, our young democratic system and our country, it would be best to release the honourable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as Deputy President of the republic and member of cabinet’ He was spot on: it WAS absolutely in the interest of South Africa to toss out a corrupt politician. But Mbeki was also deeply embroiled in the affair.
‘”Ï for one would not be able to hold my head high if a person with such supporters were to become president, someone who did not think it necessary to apologize for engaging in casual sex without taking proper precautions in a country that is being devastated by the horrendous HIV/Aids pandemic. What sort of example would that be setting’- Desmond Tutu
“The rise of the movement to place in power Jacob Zuma – at best an incompetent, at worst a man who believes it is acceptable to take bribes – poses a great risk to this country” – Ray Hartley.
Zuma was investigated by the Scorpions, and after a tortuous process that was drawn out over several years, consuming millions of rands’ worth of taxpayers’ funds and endless column inches in the country’s newspapers, charges against him were laid and dropped and laid and dropped, until it was finally judged that there had been too much political interference in the case by Mbeki-led administration. As of 6th April 2009 – just weeks before the general election – Zuma was in the clear, not because he was innocent, but because his political arch-foe had been found out. The ultimate irony is that, had Mbeki and all those who lived in horror of a Zuma presidency allowed due process to take place, it’s entirely likely that Zuma would currently be in Leeuwkop Correctional Centre, and not Tuynhuis.
And really, he should be. This escape by technicality hangs around Zuma like a bad smell. Everyone – at home and abroad – now simply assumed the president is corrupt. And many of his actions, such as the disbanding of the Scorpions immediate after he assumed the ANC presidency in Polokwane, and the appointment of Menzi Simelane as director of National Public Prosecuting Authority, seen by many as a manoeuvre that has catastrophically damaged the independence of the institution, have only served to reinforce this belief.
Corruption is, however, only half of the problem. Zuma isn’t only corrupt, he is deeply unsophisticated while president of a country that has a highly sophisticated constitution.
In 2005 he was charged with rape and taken to court. The accusations turned out to be bunkum, with the trial quire likely cooked up by Zuma’s enemies. The judge found that the sex was consensual and admonished the accuser for lying in her testimony. But the case exposed Zuma as reckless and disbelievingly ignorant about one of the gravest challenged to face the country: Aids. During the trial it was revealed that he had not worn a condom while having sex with the woman, who he knew to be HIV positive – this despite Zuma chaired the South African National Aids Council. In this testimony that would go on to be much maligned, and still haunts him today, he explained that he had showered afterwards to help avoid catching the virus.
If a man cannot think sensibly when dealing with basic urges, how can he be trusted with guiding the national economy, or managing the fundamentals of government responsibility?” – Patricia de Lille.
“Perhaps before engaging in such activity (sex with a woman who was not one of his wives) he should have checked first with an expert in the field, perhaps the former head of Moral Regeneration Campaign. Oops, that’s him”- Sunday Independent Editorial April 2006.
While the farcical shower comments dominated coverage of the trial, Zuma’s archaic attitudes to women’s rights also came to the fore. His accuser was half his age, the daughter of a (dead) friend and as Zuma explained it, she had intimated her desire for sex by not wearing underwear. Later he had felt obliged to have unprotected sex because; as the Mail & Guardian scathingly paraphrased him “it was against Zulu culture to leave women in a state of arousal”. Even more damningly, Zuma refrained from censuring the thousands of vociferous supporters in attendance, many demanding vengeance on his accuser and bearing banners declaring “Burn the bitch”. Rather he played up to them, singing the struggle song Umshini Wami with the line ‘bring me my machine gun”- at every opportunity. The damage to women’s rights was inestimable and roundly condemned.
Isn’t it still staggering all these years later? This particular trial and all the rest: corruption concerns; the homophobic slurs, the affairs and many children – 22 now apparently from the many different wives and girlfriends. It is not hard to understand the fear and concern that Zuma struck into Mbe4ki and so many others. He was a stereotype, the African tinpot dictator with his AK-47 and his ridiculous sexual shenanigans and regular disregard for democratic institutions and norms.
“Mr Zuma, who is polygamous, has been married five times. He and his second wife, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is divorced. His third wife, Kate Kantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000. He recently married his fifth wife, the 37 years old Tobeka Madiba Zuma. It has been reported that MR Zuma recently fathered his 20th child, and will soon marry again. He is engaged to Gloria Bongi Ngeman of Durban”- New York Times official biography of Jacob Zuma as of June 2010.
An odious populist”… Ä person of dubious morals, a demagogue and a rabble rouser who spends most of his time eluding prosecution for corruption”- Andre Brink.
And yet his rise to the top proved to be unstoppable. He had uncorked the power of populism’ as one journalist phrased it, and it took him all the way to the presidency. For all the damage he’d done as a moral example and as a political distraction in the years before, he now had to run the country. Lucky for him – and in many ways because of him – he had a much maligned act to follow. Thabo Mbeki has wrought so much damage in his time that the ascent of Zuma was finally deemed acceptable by all, despite his evident lack of aptitude for the job.
Predictable, his private life remains a problem. In January 2010 Sono Khoza, daughter of Zuma’s friend and soccer magnate, Irvin Khoza, gave birth out of wedlock to his latest child. It was yet another embarrassment for the ANC to handle, especially in the light of the party’s quite sensible “One girlfriend, one, boyfriend” campaign to curtail the spread of HIV and Aids. As Patricia de Lille put it, Zuma had been asking people “to do as I say and not as I do”
This of course is the hallmark of the big man. The rules do not apply to people like Zuma. He may have a fondness for getting young women pregnant, but when it’s not his spawn he had said that their babies should be taken away and the girls forced to go to university to get degrees.
Of more concern, though, is Zuma’s ability to actually perform as president, to get things done. It seems unlikely that he could do as much damage as Mbeki di, though we wouldn’t want to talk too soon – it’s certainly within the realms of possibility. Many of his appointees to important institutions, such as the NPA and Human Rights Commission have undermined their independence, while the increasing frequency of cadre employment to critical ministry and parastatal positions has catastrophic potential in the long run. Equally worrying are the proposed Protection of Infomrati9on Bill and Media Appeals Tribunal that have arisen on his watch.
But the problem, after JZ’s first year and a half in charge, is more that he hasn’t actually done anything at all. The man may well be charming in the flesh but, after all that effort to get there, it’s hard to understand why he wanted to become president in the first place. He’s simply blown with the wind, appeasing here, placating there – and fiddling as the country burns. The Soccer World Cup was great, but the country drifts along aimlessly. Corruption is all but endemic, service delivery worsens, the poor get poorer and the vacuum of strong leadership creates space for the likes of Julius Malema to flourish. Zuma shows no sign of having a powerful agenda to improve the country and or to root out corruption.Indeed, the only agenda Jacob Zuma appears to worry about is Jacob Zuma. As long as JZ is getting the treatment as the big man, and getting the girls, he’s happy. Who’s running the country? Who knows? But never fear – we’ll be fine – we always are!