Jacob Zuma likes to be cast as a man of the people – but is he?

The twilight of Jacob Zuma’s controversial leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC) and the country finds both in a parlous state. The party is in decline and centered on Zuma’s personality, while his flawed leadership undermines its ability to govern competently. I explore these themes in Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma. This is an edited extract from the book.


President Jacob Zuma’s entrance ticket into his Polokwane 2007 election was “reconnection with the people”. He was “the man of the people”, close to those who, the Zuma camp argued, then-president Thabo Mbeki had alienated. The evidence of this having been achieved is ambiguous.

Judged by general citizen sentiment expressed at the grassroots, Zuma failed to bring the ANC closer to the people. My research has shown substantial alienation between the ANC and the communities:

  • On general democracy issues citizens felt aggrieved that they frequently only saw their elected representatives at election times, and that ANC leaders care more for themselves than for the people. In election campaigns they are flooded with ANC visitors, leading to another round of “empty promises” and appeals for support for the “liberation movement”.
  • In ANC structures and meetings there are two trends: the insiders that speak glowingly of the great work of the movement; and those who regard themselves as ANC supporters (and often are ANC members), but feel excluded, for example not welcomed into branch meetings.

Research decimates the Zuma camp’s argument that the people do not care about the Nkandla scandal, involving the use of public funds on his private residence, and similar issues. The people greatly care and deeply begrudge the new political elites and their president for greed and consumption of public resources. My research project showed hardly a word of pardon or praise for the president. Instead, there was a wall of condemnation and ridicule.

The research findings contrasted with ANC staff and workers on the 2014 campaign trail, for example, testifying how Zuma was welcomed with accolades and warmth when he went campaigning. Such images were also beamed across South Africa when Zuma’s community appearances were televised.


Zuma’s “people charm”, bolstered by the general pull of power, was his great redeeming factor in his relentless quest to get into and retain presidential power for all of his second term. The Jacob Zuma Legacy Special advertising campaign put together by the state-transporty company Prasa proclaimed that he has “mainly endeared himself to people through his personal charisma and magnetic charm”.

In an interview with Business in Africa in 2009 on the eve of becoming South Africa’s president, Zuma singled out Oliver Tambo as one of his role models in becoming “a man of the people”:

While Tambo was a great thinker, he was very simple. There is nothing he did not do … When people came to him he attended to them. He would even attend to somebody who comes to raise the issue of the shoe that doesn’t have shoelaces, he would ensure that the shoelaces were found … I am not a great man. I am a man of the people. I believe in people and I think that the people are everything. Once there is disconnection with the people you have problems …


Wits University Press

Zuma’s connection with the people is partial. At least two major events, in Gauteng and in Limpopo (one was Nelson Mandela’s memorial service), saw Zuma being booed by large numbers in the audiences. ANC strategists, subsequently, carefully managed Zuma’s exposure to avoid public embarrassment.

Some “closeness to the people” was evident in the audiences Zuma has entertained at his residences in Pretoria and Nkandla. Across class, aspirant “tenderpreneurs”, (the name given to entrepreneurs who have created businesses from government tenders), and modest community members with pension and social grant issues rub shoulders while waiting for and then consulting with Zuma.

Many of the after-hours visitors are put in touch with relevant government departments. These meetings give insights into the Zuma presidency’s creation of personalised patronage networks, the other side of the formal government networks and operations. Aspects of the meetings also resemble traditional leadership community meetings.

In refutation of Zuma as the president of the people who understands their culture, my research reveals popular ridicule of the president. When focus group participants from across the demographic spectrum received the positive prompt of “Zuma is a leader, a man who understands our culture”, there followed scorn, laughter and comments on polygamy and showering.

Further prompts encouraged participants to abandon this tone, to no avail. Both this project and others confirm that voters separate their opinions of the president from their willingness to vote ANC (at least at the time, in 2014).

Zuma has nevertheless carved a safe personal net with many South Africans, especially those also of Zulu origins. Little had the Mandela-Mbeki axis of the 1990s imagined that their deployment of Zuma to get peace in the war fields of KwaZulu-Natal (and bring the province into the national post-liberation ANC) would have the repercussions it did. They helped create the platform on which Zuma would rise into power.

The ANC KwaZulu-Natal as electoral giant awoke late, and then sustained the ANC when it started declining in other provinces. Without the KwaZulu-Natal performance in the national elections of 2009 and 2014 (largely facilitated by Zuma) the ANC would have looked pitiful even if still winning.


Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma is published by Wits University Press.

Susan Booysen, Professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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