The wasted Zuma years

Former president Jacob Zuma. Photo by Muntu Vilakazi
Former president Jacob Zuma. Photo by Muntu Vilakazi

His 10-year tenure was so fraught with corruption that we face the next decade as a shell-shocked nation, struggling to emerge from the morass

Businessman Sandile Zungu aptly summed up the Jacob Zuma years when he described an abortive deal that he was involved in with the Gupta family back in 2010.

Speaking about the corporate raid in which their Ayigobi consortium used political muscle to snatch mining rights from a less connected competitor, Zungu described the deal as “money for jam”.

This controversial deal was the introduction for most South Africans to the Guptas, the royal family that would lord it over South Africa for as long as Zuma was in power.

This term was to haunt Zungu – a very able businessman who did not need to take short cuts – for many years.

Fortunately for him, things did not go according to plan and the whole deal fell apart. But he was in it long enough to get a sense of who the Guptas were long before they wreaked havoc on South Africa.

Money for jam – a way of earning quick and easy money, having put in little effort – defined the corrupt networks around Zuma.

The Guptas were the nerve centre of these networks, which spanned the South African economy, polity and social being throughout the wasted decade.

These networks, which wrecked the country, exhibited most, if not all, of the seven deadly sins.


It is true that no society is free of corruption, and it is correct that malfeasance did not begin with the Zuma years.

What was defining about the Zuma years was the brazen nature and grand scale of corruption.

These were the years in which wrongdoing was normalised and honesty was demonised.

In its 2017 report into state capture, titled the Unburdening Panel, the SA Council of Churches (SACC) noted that the “problem is far greater than corruption, but [is] organised chaos”.

“We have come to learn that what appears to be chaos and instability in government may well be systemic design of the madness that ills our governmental environment – a chaotic design,” read the report.

The SACC spoke of “observable trends of inappropriate control of state systems through a power elite that is pivoted around the president of the republic that is systematically siphoning the assets of the state”.

The amounts siphoned amid this systematic chaos ran into tens – if not hundreds – of billions of rands.

There was just no stopping this greedy and gluttonous elite. To this day it has not been stopped.


The word ‘sloth’ is defined as excessive laziness and inactivity, apathy and general lack of care about one’s duties.

This set in strongly during the wasted decade, when we saw many in the public service emulate those at the very top, particularly the head of state.

It was a decade which saw government functionality fall apart as those mandated to serve either did not care or cared only if it served to line their pockets.

This was laid bare in successive reports by Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu about government departments, provinces, municipalities and state-owned enterprises.

As Makwetu complained that there was a pattern of “disregard” for recommendations that came from his office, so arose hostility towards his staff and the questioning of the motives of his audit teams.

In some instances, there were threats and intimidation against those who came to see if public money was serving the public.


This was a time of insatiable desire for that which was owned by others, to the point of destroying the foundations of society.

We engaged in mutual self-destruction.

In parts of the country, envy turned into bloodshed as political rivals turned guns on each other in a quest for control of power and, in turn, of resources.


No one suffered this affliction more than South Africa’s governing party, and no one got hurt by it as much as the ANC.

The belief that it was superior to, and better than, any other formation in society, and that it had all the answers, fitted perfectly with the adage, pride comes before a fall.

The ANC was largely deaf to the voices of the nation during this period and held on to the belief that it had been ordained the right to rule rather than to govern.

Critical voices were swatted with a backhand slap or simply ignored.

Think Nkandla, the textbook debacle, the social grants crisis and the standoff over e-tolling. Even the arrogant defence of Zuma and his corruption was the consequence of this pride.

The ANC paid the price for this in the form of rapidly declining majorities and, more importantly, the loss of its historic position as the leader of the society.

It also lost its glue, and today it is no more than a shakily stuck together sum of its parts.

Pride was the thing that eventually halted the march of the Zuma-Gupta networks as they believed that they were untouchable while they looked down on the great unwashed masses.


These were angry years.

We saw this in the ugly scenes in Parliament when MPs clashed with each other and with the white-shirted police goons.

We saw it on the streets with the rise in violent protests and the wanton destruction of essential services such as clinics, schools and community facilities.

We got angry at each other across and within racial lines, across class lines and across gender lines.

It will take ages to douse these flames of uncontrolled anger raging across the nation.


The one thing that was destroyed in the Zuma years was lust, which, in fact, had found fertile ground during his presidency.

We will remember that the first thing Zuma did after winning the ANC presidency was to rush off and add to his large tally of spouses, which was already big enough to fill up a deserted island.

He would then use his time in the presidency to maximum effect, marrying this side, and siring on that side and ogling on that side so that he would then be able to sire on that side.

On that score he certainly did not waste his decade in power.

His lustful ways seemed to encourage many others to emulate him.

Not to be all holy and moral, but it does bear observing that the nation’s mores were definitely affected by the conduct of the man at the top.

All in all, this was a decade in which we stood still in some areas and went into reverse in most others.

There are few aspects in which we can say we made leaps, and those would have been in spite of Zuma and his crew of greedy, gluttonous and lustful characters.

Some of these characters are in faraway lands, laughing away as they watch us attempt to recover from the destruction they caused.

Others are here with us, uncertain of their future but fighting tooth and nail to take us back to a time when they could feed themselves at will.

The man who gave us the wasted decade is desperately trying to stay out of jail, cooking up conspiracy theories and strange illnesses.

We will never get these years back.

They are gone, together with the opportunities we missed as well as our seat at the table of respectable nations.

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