On Wednesday morning, Baleka Mbete was asked in an eNCA interview how President Jacob Zuma “seemed” when she broke the news to him that he would not be permitted to address the House.
“He looked like the ordinary Jacob Zuma,” she responded, “always ready to laugh at life.”
That is how our president dies: laughing at us.
For a head of state, being fired by your own party is akin to a political death, and I find myself thinking of death this week. This is not just because of Zuma’s end and the renewal that must follow it. It is also because I attended the memorial service of the struggle stalwart, my friend Rica Hodgson, on Sunday.
Rica became involved in the struggle during World War II, as a fundraiser for the Springbok Legion. Her husband, Jack, was one of the founders of (and primary bomb makers for) Umkhonto weSizwe and she dedicated herself to the movement: from her work in the Congress of Democrats through the role she played in the International Defence and Aid Fund and in the establishment of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College to her final position, as Walter Sisulu’s secretary, after his release from jail until his death. She was, as her published memoir is titled, a “foot soldier for freedom”, for all of her long adult life.
Rica died at 97 and, despite the difficulty of her last years, she had what these days is called “a good death”.
There is much literature on what constitutes a “good death” and the best definition I have found comes from the American Institute of Medicine. It is a death “free from avoidable distress and suffering for patient, family and caregivers, in general accord with the patient’s and family’s wishes, and reasonably consistent with clinical, cultural and ethical standards”. Very importantly, the goodness or otherwise of a death affects not only the one who dies but also those who are left behind.
At the memorial, which was organised by the South African Communist Party, at Johannesburg’s Metro Centre, speakers — Blade Nzimande, Derek Hanekom and Ronnie Kasrils — called for a renewal of country and party in the name of her legacy, much as Sipho Pityana and Cyril Ramaphosa had done at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral in 2016.
You could label Hodgson’s death — and its commemoration — a “good” one in the way it was used to mobilise against corruption.
But, as I sat listening to the eulogies, it struck me that her “good death” was the consequence of something else — a very good (albeit by no means easy) life. One of dignity, spirit and commitment; also of a loving and devoted circle of family, comrades and friends.
What made the memorial so poignant was not so much the politics of it as the spirit of it (if you looked past all the red bunting and the retro “Raise the Red Flag” symbology of a party revival meeting) — hundreds of people, across the usual faultlines of race and class and generation, reaching for the higher purpose that the struggle against apartheid once provided. On another day it might have felt like nostalgia; on Sunday, it felt like church, such is the need for healing.
In the Zuma era, and particularly in its second half, both the ANC government and the body politic of this country have been suffering the symptoms of morbidity. In our public discourse, metaphors have abounded as to the cause, and most have centred on a description of Zuma — and the corruption and self-interest he represents — as a cancer, which needs to be excised so as to permit the healing of the nation.
I am not going to use this space to rehearse the diagnosis and symptoms of this condition; you know them well enough. Rather, I want to look at what has happened since the ANC elected Ramaphosa as Zuma’s successor in December, and to ask the question: Has Zuma allowed himself — and therefore us — a good death?
For both ethical and strategic reasons, Ramaphosa has sought a good death for Zuma: he wants his predecessor to leave in a “dignified” way, he wants a united party behind him, and he certainly does not want civil war in KwaZulu-Natal.
But the patient is having none of it. From that scowl on his chops caught by the camera at Nasrec, through to the brinkmanship he seems still to be playing, he is raging at his fate with no care about whom he takes down with him.
Is this, as the commentators suggest, to secure a good “deal” for his afterlife? Maybe. But any ethicist — religious or otherwise — will tell you that diabolical deals lead only one way, and the only thing that can ensure safe passage across the Styx is your behaviour on this side of it.
The last political death this country endured was that of Thabo Mbeki, in 2008. The morbidity metaphors abounded in that era as they do now. The “coalition of the wounded” gathered to do party and country a service by excising what was then seen as the cancer plaguing us — Mbeki’s disconnected arrogance and his seeming desire for immortality in his quest for a third term. The illness metaphor, back then, was substantiated by the former president’s greatest failure — his refusal to acknowledge the cause of the Aids epidemic.
What Mbeki claimed back then — to me, as his biographer, and to others — was that the only reason he wished to remain in control of the ANC beyond his term of office in government was to keep Zuma out. He felt he was the only person able to stand against the man he had fired.
Was this hubris, or truth? Whichever. When Mbeki was “recalled” from office, eight months later, following evidence of his interference in the criminal investigation into Zuma, he allowed himself a good death — an eloquent and even humble public resignation at the first available opportunity (even if he was privately suffering the turmoil of having been ejected from the political family that had been his life).
This act of grace not only smoothed the passage of a new government into office. It also played its part in healing a body politic rent asunder by too many years of combative and arrogant leadership.
Zuma is not — well, at least, not yet — offering his comrades and his compatriots any such relief. On the contrary. Despite the Constitutional Court judgement ruling against him on Nkandla and the irrefutable evidence of impropriety with the Gupta family, he has stubbornly held on to office, his trademark laughter “at life” a measure of his contempt.
And so his is a bad death, not least for him. In a country with the rule of law, no deal can be done that keeps him out of jail if he is guilty, although a munificent successor — and country — might see fit to pardon him somewhere down the line.
But Zuma cannot see that his best prospects for a peaceful post-presidential afterlife can only be earned with humility and contrition. And so the manner of his drawn-out execution is proving itself to be far from the “clinical, cultural and ethical standards” of our country and its Constitution.
For this, he is by no means the only one to blame. Ace Magashule and Jessie Duarte might be playing the role of good comrades now, extolling the virtues of “democratic centralism” and falling into line (because they have no choice) behind Ramaphosa. But remember the former’s sabre rattling in KwaZulu-Natal of all places just last weekend, and the latter’s pugnacious defence of her patron. He’s going nowhere, she told us; he has done nothing wrong.
If Zuma is the dying patient, we could compile a list as long as that of the pre-Nasrec ANC national executive, of toadying family members and unscrupulous doctors attending to him, all telling him he was going to live and prosper. The horror is how close we came to this ghoulish prognosis being our reality — that hair’s breadth victory for Ramaphosa in December.
And so, of course, we will celebrate (well, I for one will celebrate) once Ramaphosa is in office and is able to give a State of the Nation address with which we all (Julius Malema’s red berets included) will actually be able to engage — a plan of action in the country’s best interest rather than that of a corrupt kleptocracy. There could be no greater symbol, in the current moment, of the restitution of the rule of law in this land.
But even if the country’s reception of Ramaphosa, as its new president, is charged with the can-do optimism of renewal, it cannot be joyous, in its core, the way the singing was at Hodgson’s memorial last Sunday morning. We cannot but remember, as we go into the Ramaphosa era, how the ANC failed for so long to deal with Zuma, and what this must say about the ruling party itself even after his departure.
This is the bad death Zuma and his cronies have bequeathed his party and our country.