/ 16 April 2014

It’s a long way down, Mr President

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin painted by former US President George W Bush
A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin painted by former US President George W Bush

Although President Jacob Zuma is going nowhere fast after the election, his job title at the top of the ANC does not include the words "for life". This is because, since his predecessor Thabo Mbeki's sudden "recall" from top office, the ANC has been in perpetual succession mode. No jobs are safe any more. So there's no harm in looking at what happens once a leader of state retires.

"There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president," former United States president John Quincy Adams lamented, after he stepped down in the 19th century. Back then, presidents had nothing to do – the revolving door did not exist, so they did not have a ready job in business. Nor was there an international stage for their continued diplomatic pro-wess. He took up writing on his estate.

The US's first president, George Washington, started a thriving whisky distillery, but was left on standby to command the nation's armies in case it went to war. It did not and he made a fortune. It was only in the later part of the 20th century that presidents continued working on the political stage after retirement. Jimmy Carter has been the most active of all, with a heavy involvement in social justice movements and international diplomacy, which won him the Nobel peace prize.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader before he tore it down, also won the Nobel peace prize and went on to found the environmental organisation Green Cross International. He appeared in several adverts – such as one for Luis Vuitton – to raise money for philanthropic causes, and recorded an album of romantic Russian ballads.

Bush's artistic route
George W Bush also chose an artistic route. Using Google images as inspiration, he did oil paintings of world leaders. An exhibition, The Art of Leadership, has drawn few plaudits and comparisons have been made to his messy presidency. More interest was shown in leaked paintings he did of himself, in the nude, in the bath.

In Africa, it is far harder to find out what presidents have done since retirement because so few have retired. Most are in the mould of Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and seem to aim to rule until death. An exception has been Kenya's Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled for more than two decades before a new Constitution set a term limit and forced his exit. He has been quiet about the political unrest in Kenya but has acted as a peace envoy in the Sudan.   

The most active African president post-retirement was Nelson Mandela. He worked to raise funds for his charitable foundations, and picked up 1 340 awards. Unlike many of his peers, he was used by his party and put in many appearances when it came to election time. 

The frequent-flying Mbeki has remained involved in African peacekeeping efforts and, through his foundation, continues beating the African renaissance drum.

His successor, albeit for nine months only, Kgalema Motlanthe, is unique in having gone from the highest office back to deputy. He will enjoy the full benefits of a former president when he finally rides off into the sunset.

When Zuma retires he will continue to get the salary he earns – currently about R2.5-million a year. But it is probably too early to think about what he will do in his retirement.

At least he will not have to worry about his safety now that the Nkandla upgrades are just about done.