Zuma’s recipe: How to make an African dictator

"Zuma’s defeat of oversight structures such as the ANC’s integrity commission and, in part, Parliament, exemplifies one of the core aspects of dictators" (AcKay/Reuters)

"Zuma’s defeat of oversight structures such as the ANC’s integrity commission and, in part, Parliament, exemplifies one of the core aspects of dictators" (AcKay/Reuters)


A recent report by City Press detailed how President Jacob Zuma refused to heed calls by the ANC’s integrity commission to resign, believing only he could stop the West from capturing the ANC.

His defiance and belief that only he possesses the power to ward off threats to the organisation show narcissism and paranoia displayed by dictators, prompting the question: Is South Africa watching the making of its own tyrant?

Zuma’s administration can be likened to baking a dictatorship-flavoured cake. Over the past few years South Africans have watched Zuma tick off the ingredients of the recipes in a book that could be called How to Make an African Dictator.

The ingredients he has collected so far include: a collapse of disciplinary systems, fearmongering and paranoia, an exaggerated mandate, no distinction between personal and private property, and demonising the opposition.

Zuma’s defeat of oversight structures such as the ANC’s integrity commission and, in part, Parliament, exemplifies one of the core aspects of dictators — once in power there is no disciplinary structure strong enough to get them out.

Prior to its contact with Zuma the integrity commission was a competent structure that brought leaders such as the ANC’s former Western Cape chairperson Marius Fransman and former Northern Cape chairperson John Block to book for bringing the party into disrepute.

But the commission’s attempts to deal with Zuma and his negative effect on the ANC suddenly saw it become a questioned and highly criticised structure in the party. Those who support Zuma have complained that commissioners have prejudged the president, with provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal claiming the oversight body was beginning to abuse its mandate.This signalled Zuma’s successful attempt at pulling the teeth of the only structure in the party that could hold him to account.

Parliament’s oversight role over the executive has also been dwarfed.
Last year the Constitutional Court found the office of speaker Baleka Mbete and the entire National Assembly acted unconstitutionally when it adopted the Nkandla ad-hoc committee’s report that found Zuma was not liable to pay for any of the upgrades to his private property. Mbete, who is also the ANC chairperson, has been accused by opposition parties of using her position in Parliament to protect Zuma.

The only remaining structure that appears to hold the president to account is the judiciary, which has also started to face attacks and allegations of overreach.

In How to Make an African Dictator the section on undermining disciplinary systems would be authored by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Even the International Criminal Court can’t touch him.

Zuma’s preoccupation with the West is common among dictators. The ANC’s recent talk of a regime change and the use of terms such as “the enemy”, “Western forces” and “colour revolution” doesn’t help. At the party’s policy conference, national executive committee member and State Security Minister David Mahlobo said talk of a regime change was no scare tactic and South Africa had traces of the four elements of a colour revolution.

Colour revolutions are feared for using nonviolent protest or civil resistance against authoritarian or corrupt governments. The name comes from using a colour as a symbol to unite citizens and people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin believe they must be suppressed.

By claiming the West is planning to capture the ANC, Zuma has started the process of using fear and paranoia to manipulate supporters into believing the only way to maintain stability is to keep him in power.

In How to Make an African Dictator the chapter on manipulating voters would be written by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He knows how to blame Western countries for Zimbabwe’s problems.

Zuma has also shown an exaggerated mandate to govern and a denial of the critical state of the ANC.

At the policy conference, secretary general Gwede Mantashe presented his diagnostic report, which detailed a rapid decline in the ANC’s support. The ANC’s research showed how less than 50% of the population was happy with the party’s direction. Despite these facts Zuma apparently disagreed with Mantashe’s use of the words “decline” and “lost” to describe the ANC’s support and its election performance.

This denial coupled with Zuma’s belief that he is the answer to the threat of the West is a sign of the narcissism dictators display.

In How to Make an African Dictator Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi could have authored the chapter on denial and convincing oneself of superpowers. He found it inconceivable that his own people would not like him.

Zuma’s inability to differentiate between state and personal property is the source of many of his legal battles. He is, after all, the president who benefited from the use of state money to fund non-security upgrades to his home, and then convince former police minister Nathi Nhleko to direct, produce and narrate a mini-documentary on how a swimming pool, a chicken run and a cattle kraal were security features.

State facilities such as Air Force Base Waterkloof were used as landing strips for his friends and their relatives. Even state-owned entities have been targeted in a plot to radically transform the livelihoods of the president’s friends.

In How to Make an African Dictator the chapter on conflating state and private property could be authored by The Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh. He knows that, if all else fails, loot state coffers and flee.

With most ingredients already collected, perhaps the only factor standing in the way of Zuma’s dictatorship cake is the absence of enough heat. This heat could still be turned up if Zuma sees the reinstatement of 783 corruption charges against him, direct implication in state capture and possible isolation from his allies.

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