Cognitive dissonance – acting in a way that is contrary to your own public statements and commitments – best summed up former president Jacob Zuma's political leadership style.
He will probably continue with his cognitive dissonance when he eventually appears before the commission of inquiry into state capture. He will more likely tell the commission how good a crime buster he had been and how he often spoke against corruption.
The commission won't be interested in his rhetoric. He will have to prove that he did not participate or lead treasonous activities in his capacity as the chief patron of state capture.
What is fascinating about Zuma's style of political leadership is its dangerous infectiousness and attractiveness. Let's call it "fatal attraction", to borrow a phrase from Project Syndicate.
Some of his supposed political opponents, interestingly the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular, actually admire his style and have been fatally attracted to it. This raises questions about whether their opposition to Zuma was due to politics of envy or whether it was principled.
For a very long time, the EFF got a huge political boost by rhetorically, legally and violently opposing Zuma's grand corruption schemes. They insulted him. They took him to court. And they destroyed parliamentary decorum (one must add, with the assistance of the National Assembly Speaker who made the House ungovernable by shielding Zuma from accountability).
All these appeared to be sincere attempts by the EFF to expose the Zuma regime and hold him to account. For waging what was seen as a brave fight against the political monster, the EFF earned public accolades. They were the believable, genuine corruption busters. Weren't they?
You did not need to be an EFF voter or supporter to be sympathetic to their anti-Zuma campaign. They knew the political significance of their style of opposition to Zuma. Zuma's fall is, in the EFF's curriculum vitae, the single biggest political achievement after securing parliamentary seats. Zuma is, however, more than a highlight in the EFF's CV. He is, in fact, an idol of the EFF leadership.
The VBS scandal – which has exposed the EFF and its leaders as alleged beneficiaries of the loot – shows that there are strong similarities between them and Zuma. When he was running our country to the ground, Zuma spoke out a lot against corruption. He even boasted to have signed a record number of proclamations for the Special Investigations Unit to probe corruption and recover public money.
But he made sure his friends were not prosecuted. No state organ, except Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the judiciary, would stand in his way as he enabled state capture to the benefit of his friends, family and political factions.
The EFF is pursuing the same strategy of speaking tough on corruption while benefitting from it. When it comes to VBS looting, where they had a share through a complicated scheme, their political stance oscillates between equivocal to downright defence of theft.
When the scandal first surfaced and a curator was appointed to run the bank, the EFF didn't waste time. It was part of a group of self-interested people who cried racism, accusing Treasury and the Prudential Authority of the Reserve Bank of failing to support a black bank.
Thanks to the investigation commissioned by the Reserve Bank and the work of investigative journalists who have been joining the dots, now we know the people who are suffering from the worst form of racial hatred: self-hate. These are the people who were responsible for destroying a bank that served poor black people. The perpetrators are predominantly black. Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu's names are among those fingered as "strategic" beneficiaries in a recent investigation by Daily Maverick.
Like Zuma, the EFF has a strategy of political deflection, obfuscation and denial. When cornered, Zuma blamed everyone but himself. If blaming white monopoly capital was not enough, he would look abroad and blame the "West". Yet, he allowed western consultancy firms to milk state-owned enterprises and approved of his friends hiring a western public relations firm to undermine Nelson Mandela's legacy of national reconciliation. Zuma professed admiration of Madiba too!
The EFF has its own bogeyman. His name is Pravin Gordhan. He is seen as dangerous to the EFF's interests because his fight against corruption is unrelenting. Zuma also saw Gordhan as a threat to his state capture interests. The EFF believes he is behind the allegations of corruption levelled against them, especially on VBS. One would not be surprised if Zuma cheered quietly from Nkandla as he saw footage of Malema and Shivambu outside the commission of inquiry attacking Gordhan, the man he most likely regards as a traitor who refused to be thankful for a Cabinet job.
Gordhan's fight against corruption is principled because he didn't fight against the Guptas when it was fashionable. He fought the beast from within and when it coughed him up badly – he was fired without even a pretentious courtesy phone call as finance minister – he continued from outside.
It is one of the greatest political ironies of our times that the EFF and Zuma are in agreement on Gordhan (dislike), VBS (support and/or defend), Tom Moyane (support) and SARS governance failures (defend), among others. After much acrimony, Zuma and the EFF leaders have strangely found each other in awkward embrace – albeit distantly. Fascinating how material interests can bring together supposed political enemies. Only a genius could script such an extraordinary tale.
- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.
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