This is not the Zuma I remember

2014-05-08 00:00

I REMEMBER when Jacob Zuma had a giggle at my expense.

While travelling with the then-deputy president in China, he took the time to sit with me and ask what I had learnt of the language.

Keen to impress, I blurted out the Mandarin phrase for “hello” — “Ni hao!”, but sort of screeched it.

“Heh, heh, heh! That,” Zuma told me, “is the language of the cat.”

He enjoyed another belly laugh when I described how I’d tried to identify plated meals on a food cart in Beijing — pointing to a dish and saying: “Um — quack, quack?” to the waitress.

Throughout the week of the delegation’s travels through Shenzhen, Beijing and Xi An, he was relaxed, efficient, affable and humble.

Zuma repeatedly said he was simply “deployed” by the ANC to fill the role of deputy president, and I specifically remember him telling me that he, personally, was not entitled to anything except the rights of any citizen. Never once did he refer to himself in the third person.

He was totally unselfconscious before 2005 — breaking into song at funerals in genuine celebration of the life lost, and taking my occasional calls on his personal cellphone with no rebuke.

He was the same when I interviewed him in Davos, Switzerland, years later, when he surprised me by revealing a genuine, almost academic interest in the issue of water security. He attended every seminar on the subject that week.

And he was the same when we talked fashion, of all things, at the Durban July years earlier.

My political-reporter friend Craig Doonan, who covered Zuma in the early nineties, recalls the man as brave and even selfless, risking his life to stop the political violence in Richmond.

This week, as South Africa effectively elects him as our leader for another five years, I realise I do not recognise this man at all.

Last week, at a rally on the KZN South Coast, he told a church audience: “The security upgrades in my home [at Nkandla] are part of the benefits due to me by virtue of my position. I fly in a military helicopter … Are these benefits not due to me?”

On Monday, he told editors in Johannesburg that it was inevitable that he, as president, would benefit in numerous ways personally: “I am running a country; I am not a project manager. No government has built Zuma’s house. I benefit all the time. They can’t ask me to pay back the money.”

I’m convinced that the Zuma of 2004, and 1994, would have been mortified to hear any struggle comrade utter such narcissistic clangers.

And it would have been inconceivable for the Zuma I remember to harm the organisation he loved to preserve his personal “benefits”.

Yet the one-time champion of peace and the erstwhile champion of the poor is now the champion of entitlement — defensive, brash and intensely self-conscious.

Some critics suggest Zuma never changed, that he projected two alternate personalities — “the pauper and the prince” — to suit any situation. But those who know him far better than I suggest he has turned a dangerous corner. In a recent open letter to Zuma, struggle activist Marion Sparg wrote: “There are so many loyal, long-serving members of the ANC I know and have spoken to, including Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans, who are truly heartbroken. They cannot believe ANC ministers have shamefully tried to dodge political accountability and say that public servants will be held to account if an investigation by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) goes against them. What I speak of is the decision to resign, comrade J.Z. Don’t wait.”

In March, Witness columnist Ranjeni Munusamy suggested that there is still hope that Zuma’s servant-of-the-people side could resurface. She wrote: “President Jacob Zuma did three things this week that showed he could go back to being the leader he had wanted to be. He went to the Khayelitsha taxi rank on Monday morning to interact with commuters and listen to their grievances. On Tuesday morning, he held a live radio interview in which more than 60 community radio stations participated and listeners were able to call in and tell him their problems. On Thursday, he reached out to a terminally ill man in the opposition benches in Parliament and gave him hope that his plea for alternate treatment for cancer would receive attention from government. Where has this president been?”

I don’t think the president changed so much as he has been changed by those around him.

But I fear they’ve done their job all too well. And so I now brace for an imperial presidency.

• Rowan Philp is a senior reporter at The Witness.

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