It is no easy task being President Jacob Zuma, and he would be forgiven for sleeping with one eye open.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is in its fifth year of trying to get fraud and corruption charges related to the arms deal reinstated against the leader, who ascended to the presidency under a cloud after a damaging battle to avert the charges.
Likewise, there is the president’s own on-going battle to keep the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) tamed to safeguard against having to face those charges again. He was forced to appoint a permanent National Director of Public Prosecutions to head up the NPA by a court of law and now the man at the top, Mxolisi Nxasana, has gone rogue on him, refusing to resign amid an alleged plot to oust him and rumours that he would reinstate corruption charges against Zuma.
Some have joked that his options in life are: face the music and go to prison, or remain president and stay safe.
No wonder the president is exhausted.
Zuma was released from a Pretoria hospital on Sunday after admission for tests on Saturday. While ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe insisted on Sunday at a media briefing that the president’s hospital admission was a normal check-up, City Press reported on the same day that Zuma stopped speaking 10 minutes into a speech on Friday complaining of a neck pain, and was expected to be out of action for three to four days due to exhaustion.
But at 72 years of age, Zuma has been given little reprieve by his party. The election campaign ahead of the May 2014 general elections was a fight for his political survival.
Zuma was widely thought to be one of the ANC’s biggest disadvantages ahead of the election following a slew of personal scandals and perceived as the party’s weakest presidential candidate to date. The ANC was understood to have contemplated putting forward another leader as presidential candidate, given how compromised and unpopular their leader was.
But electioneering went ahead with Zuma at the centre of the party’s campaign. It proved to be the party’s most difficult and exhausting canvassing to date by its own admission. Mantashe joked with journalists on Sunday that several leaders, including himself, were ordered to rest given the gruelling campaign.
Mantashe described sometimes falling asleep on his sofa while watching television “with the face of the president and when you wake up at four in the morning you say it is this man that makes me so tired, and you look at his face on your T-shirt, so it was punishing for everybody”, City Press reported.
Nkandla was reportedly the number one question put to the party’s leaders by ordinary voters as they hit the campaign trail.
Accordingly, Zuma had to work overtime to prove to his party that he could still bring in the votes. He attended and addressed at least 60 government functions in the first four months of this year ahead of the May 7 elections, City Press reported on Sunday, and showed signs of great fatigue and strain towards the end of his campaign. By the time his second inauguration rolled around on May 26, he looked lacklustre and at the announcement of his Cabinet, and shortly afterwards barely cracked a joke with journalists as he is known to do.
The party also worked hard to foreground their own achievements as a liberation party now in governance, and avoided highlighting Zuma as a leader during its campaigning. The ANC’s very election posters highlighted this strategy. Zuma was cast into the background behind dominant text as his party campaigned similarly, encouraging voters to support the party, not the problematic individual leading it. A series of “step up” posters didn’t even feature him.
Early in his presidency, he was dogged by a number of personal scandals. He married for the fifth and sixth time in the first few years of his presidency, bringing his total of wives up to four and sparking complaints of the amounts of public funds dedicated to supporting them in terms of the spousal office for presidents. He has over 19 children, and fathered several over the years with various women who are not his wives. It provoked a backlash in 2010 when he had a child with Sonono Khoza, the daughter of his friend and soccer boss Irvin Khoza.
But the biggest scandal of his presidency has been the revelation of excessive spending of public money on security upgrades at his private residence in Nkandla. He also has a habit of making serious gaffes in his off-the-cuff comments in public, such as his jibes over “clever blacks”, single women, and religious curses on those who did not vote ANC.
Zuma worked hard to avoid being punished by his party for losing votes and the ANC recorded only a small decline at the polls, still winning by a comfortable majority.
Remaining politically relevant
But all that work has appeared to take its toll on Zuma. While he is out of hospital, it is unclear whether he will attend the Cabinet lekgotla beginning this Tuesday. The presidency stated that he would work from home over the next few days during his rest period, and his spokesperson Mac Maharaj did not return questions to the Mail & Guardian on the matter.
But the risk Zuma runs during this time is allowing other ambitious leaders to outshine him in his absence.
There was a battle to oust him after just one term in office by the so-called change faction in 2012. The group sought to replace him with his then deputy Kgalema Motlanthe at the party’s elective conference in Mangaung in December 2012. But Zuma worked to ensure he was untouchable and won convincingly.
He will have to get back to work soon to keep himself in the clear and politically relevant. And his health will likely continue to take a backseat in the daily fight for his political survival.