/ 16 February 2018

Jacob Zuma: Made in Luthuli House

(Graphic: John McCann)
(Graphic: John McCann)

We were fascinated, as kids, with the origins of our toys. We were happy to delay, for a few moments, playing with our new toys on Christmas Day until we had turned them upside down to read “Made in China” or “Made in Hong Kong”. I had no clue where in the universe these places were but they became, in my little head, synonymous with toys.

If you could take former ANC president Jacob Zuma and turn him upside down, what would you see emblazoned on those heels of his — or what little of those heels are left after all the digging in he has been doing? I reckon the words “Made in Luthuli House” would still be visible.

No doubt Cyril Ramaphosa, the current ANC president, would love you not to turn Zuma upside down. And, if Ramaphosa had a magic wand, he would wish to emblazon a different set of words on Zuma’s feet: “Made in the Saxonwold shebeen”. That, of course, would be to substitute political and historical truth for wishful Ramaphosa thinking.

Zuma wasn’t born yesterday. And the Gupta family, in turn, did not arrive here during the apartheid years. Zuma’s involvement in the struggle against apartheid, and his role in both the ANC and the post-apartheid government, are a litany of inconvenient biographical facts that the not-so-new ANC leadership is desperately, furiously and unconvincingly trying to sidestep. We would do well to keep Ramaphosa’s ANC brutally honest even as we all yearn for optimism.

Optimism that is not anchored in a dispassionate analysis of the historical record will come back to haunt us long after Zuma’s name has faded from public memory.

These thoughts surfaced for me on Tuesday afternoon as the politically inept secretary general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, attempted to ignore three pointed questions from journalists about the reasons for the party recalling Zuma as state president. The first two times the question was put to him, he simply pretended to be deaf.

The third time it was put to him, he chose to lie. He started off by singing Zuma’s praises and reminding everyone of his role in the struggle for a just South Africa. Thereafter he simply lied, claiming that Zuma was being recalled solely and wholly because the ANC does not want to have two centres of power, one in the state and another in the party.

But you cannot contain the leaking of information from inside the national executive committee discussions. There are too many NEC members, too many different interests and too many ANC leaders that one can, with some journalistic skill, use to triangulate claims about the details of discussions that went on till late into Monday night.

Zuma is being recalled because he has pissed on the Constitution for too long. He is a key actor in the state capture drama and the slide towards a mafia state. He is a pawn of his keepers, whose private interests he has faithfully served for many years, and his family has benefited from his occupancy of the highest political office in the land.

Magashule is disingenuous to assert that Zuma is innocent. One is not only guilty, morally and politically, if a court of law declares you to be guilty of a crime. Indeed, someone can be declared innocent in law and, in fact, be guilty of a crime. The law, for good sui generis reasons, demands that certain principles and rules of evidence be complied with before someone can, beyond reasonable doubt, be legally adjudicated as being a criminal.

But the law does not bar citizens from thinking for ourselves. We can recognise that someone has not yet been found guilty by a court of law or has been acquitted by a court of law and, consistent with respecting the unique authority of the courts in society, we can make private judgments about their actual culpability because law, politics and morality answer to different sets of norms.

As a citizenry, we must call each other out when any of us tries to short-circuit urgent discussions about political agency and culpability by doing what Magashule was doing this week and saying that, since X has not been found guilty in a court of law, X is innocent. That is not a valid argument. It rests on a fatal ambiguity on the terms “guilt” and “innocence”, which also have meaning and functionality outside the law.

But let’s cut to the chase. It is, of course, possible that Magashule is not the sharpest tool in the Saxonwold shed. I do not know. I have neither met him nor interacted with him in my media roles. The other possibility is that he is, in fact, sharp — many dodgy people have to be sharp to get away with their dodgy behaviour for a long period of time. He might therefore be deliberately lying about why Zuma had to be recalled.

The incentive to lie goes back to my recollection about the origins of toys. If the ANC had to admit that Zuma has been trampling on the Constitution for a very long time, then it will have to also own up to its own role in the making of Zuma.

He was not manufactured in China or Russia. He was not manufactured in the Saxonwold shebeen. He was, in fact, chosen by the ANC as its trusted successor to former president Thabo Mbeki. Before then, he had been holding top party leadership and government positions since the dawn of democracy. They anointed him. They gave him space to wield enormous power.

Indeed, they saw him as the perfect antidote to Mbeki’s aloofness, and Mbeki’s flirtation with growth policies that had proved to be neither conducive to decimating unemployment figures nor to improving the lot of exploited workers, let alone reducing racialised inequities.

It is the ANC who elected this man while knowing that his deepest footprints in the party are in the shadowy world of underground intelligence operations rather than in the sanitising light of an open and transparent democracy.

The ANC, after seconding him to the top job, provided very poor oversight of Zuma despite knowing that under Mbeki’s watch there was already evidence of state institutions being abused for nefarious factional ends — and despite knowing that Zuma operates in the shadows. It is all he has ever known.

It gets worse: the talk of the “new” ANC leadership that is in place now is disingenuous. Ramaphosa, and the likes of Lindiwe Sisulu, have known for years that Zuma is at best useless (and that we could never afford a useless president) and at worst an enemy of constitutionalism. Their silence sponsored Zuma’s constitutional delinquency. Why did they allow the nightmare to play out for so long?

Extending our analogy, not only did Luthuli House manufacture Zuma, it also kept replacing the batteries that were needed to keep the toy from performing all sorts of dangerous tricks. (And, of course, as modern toys go, Zuma displays intentional behaviour and would certainly pass the Turing test. He is therefore culpable for his own actions.)

Belatedly, Ramaphosa and his friends want to distance themselves from the Zuma years and from Zuma himself. They have almost succeeded. Since Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president, he has enjoyed a honeymoon period with sections of our media. I do not blame my colleagues. We are humans and citizens before we are sceptical scribes. That we desire to live in a better South Africa than the one we are currently in, however, is no excuse for being evidence-averse. We must be led by the facts.

It is not true that there is a wholly virtuous faction of the ANC led by Ramaphosa and a wholly vicious faction of the ANC that was led by Zuma. This kind of dichotomy is simply false. There is one ANC 
in which you will find ambitious men and women cliffing one another in the politician’s inherent yearning to get to the top of the political ladder.

That does not mean, in turn, that we must be fatally sceptical about Ramaphosa’s intentions to try to reverse the rot inside the ANC and the state. But we would not be doing the country — or, for that matter, the ANC — any favours by relaxing our critical faculties.

The ANC has taken no responsibility for its crucial role in enabling Zuma to steal from society with his keepers. Until it does so, we should be suspicious of the party’s commitment to honest government under Ramaphosa’s leadership. We can only believe that commitment to be genuine if it is anchored in an accurate self-examination of the ANC’s organisational culpability for the Zuma years.