No more the victim, Mr President

ANC supporters hold up a poster of Jacob Zuma.(AFP)

ANC supporters hold up a poster of Jacob Zuma.(AFP)

The uncanny ability to survive has always characterised President Jacob Zuma's leadership. And claims of victimhood have been the most common tactics employed in his grand scheme of survival. 

This victimhood mentality can be traced to his childhood. He once told me a piteous story of how as a child he used to be picked on by extended family members.
His father had died when he was young; his domestic worker mother was often away. He felt vulnerable and victimised. He was used as a scapegoat for anything that went wrong, he said in an interview in Durban in April 2009.

I felt sorry for him. 

He told this newspaper in March 1990 that he was prevented from visiting his mother at her Durban workplace by the "madam". Years later, he spent 10 years on Robben Island and did not get a single visitor.

These are painful experiences that could have justifiably left him with a permanent scar and feelings of persecution. I'm no ­psychoanalyst, but I'd like to believe that this heart-rending experience could have shaped the character of his leadership.

It was probably also not easy, without any formal education, to grow up in an organisation led by intellectual giants, organic thinkers and very clever blacks. I suspect this also informs his contemptuous attitude towards intellectual snobbery. He has always seen himself as a poor fellow, a man of the people, the innocent village boy misunderstood and mocked by the powerful and snooty intellectual types.

His followers continue to view him as the victim of a resentful media corps, a supercilious middle class, foreign powers and disdainful intelligentsia. To a certain degree, Zuma's loyalists have a point. Some of these haughty and classy sorts with superior educations find him very shallow, rough and unable to comprehend their subjective, "sophisticated" view of the world.

The derision directed at his inability to read fluently must have entrenched and triggered – correctly so – the childhood persecutory pain. The fact that he came back from exile, at age 48, with nothing but some cheap donated suits must have also contributed to his expectations of sympathy when faced with financial scandals.

Again, I empathised.

But this playing the victim has to stop. He is no longer powerless. He is the most powerful man on the continent and one of the most influential Africans in the world. He must account for his actions.

He was indirectly elected (through the powers delegated to MPs) by more than 10-million South Africans. He and his flak-catchers can no longer use the victim card to shield him. His persecution complex should not be used as a defence mechanism to escape liability.

His former communications aide Zizi Kodwa wrote in 2010 that some editors treated Zuma mercilessly because they didn't like him. Why should they?

Zuma made it through as ANC president in 2007 and became the country's leader in 2009, despite what he and his party saw as a concerted media onslaught against him. And if we are to believe the latest surveys, he's again likely to defy the hostile expectations of the arrogant media and conceited clever blacks.

The president must take responsibility and account for his exercise of public power. He must not forget that the legitimacy of his leadership is derived from public trust. He must earn it. But he tends to believe that survival, servile loyalty and sophistry are the stuff of leadership.

To him and those around him, taking responsibility is akin to implicating oneself. He must avoid it at all costs, they advise.

For example, he has never publicly accepted responsibility, as head or part of the leadership of the ANC's security department, for the human rights violations that occurred in the movement's camps in exile. Even though Zuma was never held personally liable, he did not stand up and account for his ­department's actions.

His sycophants in the ANC have always made sure that he survives even if, to be fair to him, he accepted responsibility for any wrongful actions and apologised. Shortly after he was fired as deputy president by then-president Thabo Mbeki in 2005, Zuma offered to step aside from party leadership positions in order to clear his name. But it was Nathi Mthethwa, who insisted that delegates at the party's national general council of 2005 should ­discuss his survival.

During the discussions, Zuma also created the impression that he had been forced to step aside. It suited his survival stratagem. Instead of the delegates tackling Mbeki's divisive leadership, the council became a forum to ensure Zuma's survival.

Then along came the rape charges. Instead of digesting Judge Willem van der Merwe's poetic moral ­reprimand, Zuma and his throng were jubilant at his acquittal. Zuma's ringleaders – who, interestingly, then included his current nemeses Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema – embarked on a sustained campaign to rescue their leader.

Ironically, Vavi is now preaching to Zuma (on Nkandla) to heed Mahatma Gandhi's moral lessons: "There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts." Vavi is right, but it's a bit rich coming from someone who once warned the world of the birth of a Zuma "tsunami". It was Vavi and those who then supported Zuma who saw nothing wrong with the president's moral judgement; they put the blame on conspirators.

To them, Zuma's choices, decisions, conduct and character didn't matter – as long as he survived politically. Criminal charges against him were viewed as part of a thickening plot by conspirators who wanted to get rid of the son of Nkandla.

Granted, the National Prosecuting Authority also politicised the criminal justice system and thus inadvertently contributed to his survival. But that suited him. When he fathered a child out of wedlock and failed to declare his financial interests, his aides made excuses for him. When the Guptas violated one of the country's key strategic entry points, Zuma the victim was all too defensive.

Ministers, party leaders and comrades are trying very hard to undermine constitutional institutions just so he can survive the Nkandla scandal. They have combed the public protector's report for legal trifles, and shouted at Thuli Madonsela.

Zuma will survive. But will the country and the ANC survive?

Moshoeshoe Monare is the Mail & Guardian's deputy editor.

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