In the course of his detailed self-exculpation (in procedural terms) this week, just ahead of his actual resignation, former president Jacob Zuma asked repeatedly: “What have I done wrong?” He said nobody in the ANC had been able to tell him what exactly his sins were. Now he may well have a point here: Why has the ANC not been able to enunciate all Zuma’s sins?
It may be that nobody in the ANC, at least among those who had an actual face-to-face with Zuma when he was president, was able to tell him what exactly he had done wrong. Maybe it was simply a lack of courage, or perhaps they too were in denial. For the record, then — and for the former president’s clarity of mind — we list here a broad range of issues that indicate why Zuma was a very bad president. Here is what he did wrong:
• He came to power as a compromised figure. He’d got his 783 charges of corruption, racketeering and money-laundering dropped, in a very dodgy decision, by the then acting head of the prosecuting authority, and he did so in an underhanded way — with the help of the “spy tapes” that were probably illegally obtained.
• He had also just survived a rape trial. He was acquitted, but had conducted his defence in a way that reflected very badly on him. Apart from the patriarchal, sexist, tribalist and Aids-ignorant views he expressed in the witness box, he allowed his supporters to mass outside the court to intimidate the judge and his accuser (who they threatened to kill).
• On his way to the top, Zuma factionalised the ANC. He yoked to his campaign figures such as Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi, South African Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande and the ANC Youth League’s commander at the time, Julius Malema, only to stab them all in the back in due course. Cosatu split a few years later; Malema formed the ANC’s most threatening opposition party.
• Zuma’s network took in not only businesspeople willing to fund him and his family but the regional barons too, corrupting the political process in several provinces. His relationship with the Gupta family led to the enrichment of his son, Duduzane, and allowed them to get their fingers into all sorts of state-related pies. This is the process of state capture outlined by the public protector’s report, revealed in the #GuptaLeaks emails, and now under investigation by Parliament. Basically, Zuma was the president of state capture.
• On his presidential watch, the state-owned entities reached the point of implosion. Yes, the ailments of Eskom, for one, go back to the Thabo Mbeki era, but Zuma and his appointments only made the situation worse. Eskom is now on the brink of bankruptcy and SAA can not afford to exist. The South African Revenue Service has been gutted. He suborned state bodies such as the intelligence services, using them to further his ends. Their criminal behaviour was overlooked if it served him.
• Zuma undermined public institutions that were meant, by the Constitution, to provide checks and balances on executive power and to probe malfeasance. Because of Zuma’s appointments (many declared irrational by the courts) to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), it became a toothless poodle, capable only of creating some very odd charges against people such as Pravin Gordhan, who Zuma wanted out of the finance ministry. The NPA was incapable of truly pursuing its mandate to investigate and charge criminality. And that was after Zuma had destroyed the Scorpions, the unit that had investigated him, and a unit that was highly successful in its actions against corruption — too successful for Zuma, obviously.
• In dealing with issues such as his appointments of questionable individuals to key posts and the backlash thereof, he dragged such cases through every court, up to the highest in the land, maintaining a Stalingrad defence in everything — just as he did with his corruption charges. Vast amounts of state funds were spent on lawyers to delay the progress of any legal action against Zuma, though often at the last minute they had to admit that they didn’t really have a case. (And there is probably more of this to come.)
• He also used public funds to upgrade his personal homestead at Nkandla, apparently in the belief that he was simply entitled to a quarter of a billion rands being spent on his kraal, fire pool, cattle tunnels and the like. His defence was to obfuscate, lie, evade and deny. Nobody believes any more that it happened without his knowledge and collusion.
• Zuma also corrupted the political process, by means of patronage dispensed to supporters such as the “premier league”. In Parliament, the speaker became his chief bodyguard and silencer of critics. He surely approved of the way the Economic Freedom Fighters were physically thrown out of Parliament by heavies because they wouldn’t sit still and listen to another meaningless State of the Nation address, or because they wouldn’t take his lame explanations of how he’d never done anything wrong.
Overall, too, we have simply to ask: Apart from what Zuma did wrong, what, precisely, did he do for the people of South Africa?
What did he do to halt economic decline or prevent investment downgrades? Which piece of legislation that he sponsored was likely to actually improve the lives of the poorest citizens of the country? We certainly can’t think of anything.