Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Lessons Jacob Zuma taught us

2018-02-16 12:23
Jacob Zuma - now just another SA citizen with pressing legal problems. (Walso Swiegers, Bloomberg)

Jacob Zuma - now just another SA citizen with pressing legal problems. (Walso Swiegers, Bloomberg)

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Now that President Jacob Zuma, once a seemingly invincible figure, is out of the public office that he had used as an instrument of plunder, it would be a mistake to attempt to forget him.

Some people are already annoyed at the mention of his name. Such is the extent of the hatred he induced. But his political rise and demise and the aftermath of his dramatic fall hold lessons for different actors in the realm of politics, government, family, business and society.

Here are some of the lessons:

- President Cyril Ramaphosa: Don’t try to determine your successor. It is tempting when you are the incumbent president to try to pave a way for your preferred successor. It doesn’t work. Our short history as a democracy demonstrates this.  

Zuma campaigned for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It didn’t end well for him. President Thabo Mbeki before him, tried to intervene in the succession. However understandable his intention, it failed dismally. Tragically, Zuma failed to learn from it.

Mbeki himself didn’t learn from President Nelson Mandela who had failed to get his preferred successor, which happened to be you, Ramaphosa. Do your best while you still have the privilege of governing. History will judge you for what you did and did not do during your tenure. You won’t be judged for your after-tenure.

- ANC Members of Parliament: Learn to influence your political bosses and nudge them in the right direction to avoid looking like clowns. For far too long, you cheered Zuma on as he habitually delivered lies in the National Assembly.

Now after your political bosses had instructed you to remove Zuma, you were more than prepared to do so, making you look like you suffer from political schizophrenia. Zuma has dragged the integrity of many of you into the mud. Try to fix that and make serving as a parliamentarian a respectable public service. Let there be honour in being an MP. Most of you are dishonourable honourable Members of Parliament.

- Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and other trade unions: Focus on representing the interests of your members, safeguard your independence and don’t over-invest in one political leader. Cosatu leaders were so emotionally invested in the Zuma project that they were prepared to shed 300 000 members whose biggest affiliate union, Numsa, had begun to question his leadership capabilities.

Numsa leaders were the first within Cosatu to wake up to the reality that the Zuma revolution was nothing but counter-revolution to the interests of workers. Some Cosatu leaders were compromised by their links to Zuma. Cosatu members should consider passing a resolution preventing their leaders from sitting on the National Executive Committee of the ANC.

 - Opposition parties – DA, EFF UDM, IFP, ACDP and others: No amount of labelling should dissuade you from doing what you believe is right in the service if your country. Democratic South Africa doesn’t have differentiated citizenship. All citizens have a role to play and no citizen is more important than the other regardless of political affiliation. You have been vindicated and you need to keep on doing what the Constitution demands of you and be faithful to your voters.

Never mind the people who say now that Zuma is gone it means you have lost your relevance. Such thinking ignores the fact that the opposition doesn’t exist only to win votes; it’s also about making an impact in-between elections. You did it with distinction under Zuma. The country is heavily indebted for the excellent work you have done.

- To honest civil servants: You may not get a bonus for doing the right thing. Your job and your life could be on the line for doing your job according to legal and ethical prescripts. But insisting on playing by the rules shows long-term strategic thinking rather than taking short-cuts for immediate gain. Think about all the civil servants who are due to appear in various tribunals on charges of corruption and other misdemeanours because the chief patron of graft and state capture is no longer in office. Who has the last laugh?

- Cabinet ministers: Cut out the bling and try to live an ordinary life. To be fired from Cabinet must not constitute the biggest downfall. But it certainly looks like and feels like it if the fall is from the highest altitude of bling and materialism. Better look like a servant and leave bling to those to whom it is currency. The replacement of rationality by bling is one of the greatest tragedies of our politics. It has killed the idealism that is required in government, especially a young democracy.

- To all politicians: Never allow your partners and children to get involved in matters of public office. Even your spouses who enjoy certain entitlements, including travel and spousal allowances, should understand that they are not public representatives. Nor are they your spokespersons in matters of public affairs. Zuma’s children have been involved in scandalous arguments with members of the public, journalists and in some instances with ANC officials. They regarded the elevation of Zuma as a family entitlement. It was not. Let it sink in: South Africa is a constitutional democracy and not a dynastic republic.

- To all public leaders: Be grateful and don’t cry injustice arising from public attacks associated with the public position. To agree to be elevated to the top is to renounce any claim to labour rights and some other entitlements earmarked for the poor and weak in society. There is no such thing as a victimised president as Zuma wanted us to believe. He was privileged, not entitled, to occupy the office and he should have been grateful. His failure to express unqualified gratitude is scandalous because he disregards the eight and a half years that he has served as president.

- To all civic-minded citizens, including those who marched to the Union Buildings and other places demanding Zuma’s resignation after he became reckless with Cabinet changes: no amount of civic action is insignificant. The fall of Zuma is a culmination of many factors including protest by citizen. It might have come a little late, but you must be proud that it came nonetheless. Learn from your own action and repeat this in future – when necessary.

- To all educated people, including lawyers and accountants: Let’s not use our skills to commit crimes. We are bringing education into disrepute. All the professionals who helped Zuma to lie and his friends to loot public resources have disgraced themselves and their qualifications.

- Multinational companies seeking market share and investment opportunities in South Africa: Always investigate and seek independent advice about the political rules of the game. Don’t be fooled by politicians who promise to give you special protection. Their days in office are not always guaranteed. Proximity to the political leadership and access to political decision makers is not the reason to disregard domestic laws.

Many companies – SAP, China South Rail, McKinsey, KPMG, Bell Pottinger, Bank of Baroda – were convinced they were close to some stereotypical African dictator who could use the government fiscus as his personal purse. South Africa is different. Zuma might have belonged to that league of kleptocrats, but the South African political system is not conducive for such. We are a complex democracy with complex institutions – an outcome of a complex history. Take time to study us carefully and seek help. Or else, you will be embarrassed.

- To journalists and whistle blowers: Do what you know best. Never stop digging, regardless of who is in power and the risk inherent in the work.

- Mkhabela is with the Department of Political Science at the University of South Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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