Zuma’s corrosive legacy is self-inflicted

He worked his way up from poverty and imprisonment for his political beliefs to become the country’s leader but he will be remembered for a presidency that hurt the people


It was during the course of the national executive committee (NEC) meeting on September 19 2008 that I came to appreciate what had led to Jacob Zuma’s victory over Thabo Mbeki in the contest for ANC presidency the previous year.

The ANC’s national conference at Polokwane in December 2007 had a number of novel features. Mbeki’s succession of Nelson Mandela in 1997 had been uncontested. In 2002 Mbeki was once again elected president unopposed. At the Polokwane conference two distinct slates contested the seats on the NEC. As Mbeki and Zuma mobilised their supporters for the express purpose of numerically dominating the executive that would emerge, two political camps had formed. For the first time since June 1991, an organised group of like-minded ANC members had gathered openly on the football field to agree on the list of candidates they would collectively support.

As the debate about Mbeki’s recall ebbed and flowed I was convinced that we had persuaded the majority to allow Mbeki to serve out the remainder of his term as president of South Africa. “It’s well-nigh impossible to defend Comrade Thabo,” one NEC member said to me during a tea break. “It’s not a matter of defending Mbeki,” I responded, “It’s upholding certain ANC practices. This is just vindictive.”

[Rivals: Thabo Mkebi (above) resigned after the ANC called on him to do so, opening the way for Jacob Zuma (pictured at Nkandla, below, which was part of his undoing) to be voted in as president despite allegations of corruption against him. (GCIS, Simphiwe Nkwali/Gallo Images/Sunday Times)]

As those who felt they had been victimised by Mbeki during his term as ANC president took to the floor it became clear they were motivated by payback. Mbeki had antagonised a number of significant constituencies. Though most people knew that he had little respect for labour federation Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the South African Communist Party’s Blade Nzimande, they had expected Mbeki to at least respect their offices. Three members of the NEC had been wrongly accused of plotting against him. That night those chickens came home to roost.

There was a near-palpable mood swing in the meeting as the aggrieved recounted deeply felt slights and perceived sufferings at Mbeki’s hands. The decision to recall Mbeki won overwhelming support and, as the minority, we were obliged to submit to it.

Slate politics resulted in an NEC dominated by Zuma’s supporters. The leadership of the ANC Youth League had passed from Fikile Mbalula to a reckless young man, Julius Malema. Though the women’s league had made noises about a woman president, they were content with Zuma.

Shocked by the outcome of the 2007 elective conference, a number of leading members of the ANC resigned to form the Congress of the People (Cope) in 2008. Cope attracted sufficient numbers to field candidates in the 2009 general elections.

The Polokwane conference institutionalised what had until then been a more or less shamefaced practice of circulating lists of preferred candidates. At Mangaung in 2012 and again at Nasrec, Johannesburg, in 2017, it was evident that the slate was now an accepted ANC practice and the supporters of such slates hold their own meetings on the fringes of a conference to take binding collective decisions.

The coalition that elected Zuma as ANC president has been characterised as an alliance of the wounded. It had virtually no supporters in the mainstream media and it was clear from the outset that it would be a battle to elect Zuma. Though the ANC’s share of the national vote had dropped from 2004, Zuma was elected president of the country with a 65% majority in 2009.

Good overshadowed by bad

Zuma’s presidency has been dogged by misfortunes, most of them self-inflicted. These have come so thick and fast that good policies the Zuma administration put into practice have gone largely unnoticed.

After a decade of Mbeki’s Aids denialism, the minister of health appointed by Zuma rolled out a comprehensive ARV distribution programme that has contained an epidemic that had resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Despite a lack-lustre foreign minister, during Zuma’s watch South Africa has acquired important foreign allies through the five main emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and our foreign policy has been re-oriented with a powerful South-South bias.

The relationship that has received the most public notice is that between Zuma, members of his family and the Gupta family. With brazen presumption, the Guptas have flaunted their friendship with the Zuma family, specifically with the pater familiae himself. Even as more and more evidence emerged indicating a less than savoury relationship between the president and the Guptas, the actions of the Gupta family conspired to implicate him more seriously.

[One of Mbeki’s crimes was his Aids denialism and Zuma championed the fight against the disease (above). Zuma was wooed by the Gupta family (below), leading to the public protector’s State of Capture report. (Mpume Ngcobo/Gallo Images/Daily Sun, Siyabulela Duda/Presidency)]

The influence this family exercised in government and over government officials became clear when a national keypoint, Waterkloof air base, was used as a reception point for the Gupta family’s wedding guests. Showing off their status as the ultimate insiders, the Guptas initiated negotiations with prospective ministers even prior to their appointment. The ostentatious conduct of the Guptas and the associations this family developed with the boards of a number of state-owned enterprises has resulted in allegations of state capture.

Though Zuma and his then deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, repeatedly pronounced on the issue of corruption, the environment that evolved in and around the Zuma presidency emboldened and abetted the corrupt, not least owing to the business activities of those associated with the president himself.

Tensions among the ANC leadership and in government invariably found resonance among the membership. As 2012 approached, a slate in opposition to Zuma coalesced around Motlanthe.

Having initially given Zuma unstinting and vociferous support, people were surprised to see Malema lead a substantial number of the youth league out of the movement to found the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2013. The departure of the EFF was the second breakaway from the ANC during Zuma’s term of office.

Media and Constitution run-in

The media treated Zuma with great scepticism even before he was elected ANC president. The decade during which he had deputised for Mbeki in the ANC and the government saw clashes with the media about Zuma’s relationship with Schabir Shaik. That had resulted in Zuma’s dismissal as deputy president in 2006. Relations with the media deteriorated further when Zuma was charged with rape and his supporters pilloried his accuser.

[Sign of the times: Jacob Zuma’s supporters fought for him up to the eleventh hour. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)]

At the best of times there is a tension between government and the media. In the United Kingdom a “gentlemen’s agreement” between government and the media keeps news that the government might find embarrassing out of the media. South African media, recently emancipated from decades of censorship and other repressions, observes no such restraints.

From the first months of 2008, the Zuma presidency sought to improve its media image. Its efforts were encumbered by a conference resolution calling for the establishment of a Media tribunal, which could adjudicate complaints against the media. In a number of meetings with the South African National Editors Forum Motlanthe was able to persuade the editors to re-examine their self-regulatory regime.

The crunch issue between the government and the media became the Protection of Information Bill, an official secrets Bill pioneered during Mbeki’s incumbency, that the media regarded as draconian. After heated public exchanges, the Bill was substantially altered though still not to the media’s satisfaction.

Suspicions about the Zuma presidency’s commitment to the Constitution and the protections it gave citizens deepened during the second five years of his incumbency. The Nkandla scandal involving the upgrading of Zuma’s private residence at state expense proved the most damaging. What were characterised as security upgrades amounted to hundreds of millions of rands.

When the public protector inquired into the matter she ruled that the state should not be accountable for the nonsecurity features. Her ruling that Zuma should pay for these put them on a collision course.

The Nkandla matter and Zuma’s response to it escalated the issue, leading to a Constitutional Court judgment against him. The unanimous judgment of the court opened the doors to impeachment proceedings. He survived three votes of no confidence during one session of Parliament.

Roots of the robber barons

It is an open secret that soon after the National Party was elected into office in May 1948, it changed banks, moving all government accounts from the Standard and Barclays banks to Volkskas. Indeed, as the first democratically elected ministers our first pay cheques in 1994 were drawn against Volkskas.

Using control of the state and its institutions for purposes of accumulating capital has been an established South African pattern since Cecil John Rhodes became prime minister of the Cape Colony. All the parties involved in the South African War knew that Rhodes and his cronies had incited the war to seize control of the goldfields. Joseph Chamberlain’s conciliatory initiatives in pursuance of White unity after 1902 resulted in the racist Union Constitution of 1909.

JBM Hertzog’s National Party, but especially DF Malan’s “purified” National Party, with its Broederbond component, was conceived as a political instrument to gain control of the state to advance the interests of a class of Afrikaner capitalists. The Nat-Labour coalition of 1924 set that process in motion. May 1948 marked its maturation. The Free State goldfields gave Afrikaner landowners the leverage and in 1953 General Mining (today’s Gencor) was incorporated with support from the Anglo-American corporation.

[Bond of brothers: Founder of the National Party DF Malan (centre seated), who served as prime minister from 1948 to 1954, and his Cabinet advanced the interests of Afrikaner capitalists]

The objectives of the National Party’s apartheid policy were to stabilise the agricultural work force and also to render African workers defenceless against their employers. By 1990, Afrikaner-led corporations had graduated from the also-rans of the 1950s into the corporate big league.

Unlike the Anglo and Afrikaner political elites who preceded them, the African political elite who assumed political office in 1994 possessed no economic assets. In a number of cases, winning a seat in a legislature was the first secure job or chance of remunerative employment.

The majority of ANC MPs moved from match-box houses or shanties in informal settlements into Parliamentary villages before acquiring homes of their own. Political office offered access to secure employment not only to individuals but also to an entire stratum that had previously been debarred by racist law and practice.

The opening up of opportunities has led to the rapid rise in numbers of Africans in executive positions in state-owned enterprises and in the private sector. A robber baron ethos has taken root among some of them leading to the abuse of these parastatals and to the outright plunder of state resources.

Zuma has not covered himself in glory during a decade as president of South Africa. The stratum of African wannabe fat cats, nurtured on his watch, has become greedier and is acting with greater impunity. The limp-wristed response to corruption and Zuma’s own entanglement with networks of persons engaged in corruption has fuelled it further.

An undignified demise

Given that Mbeki’s removal from office was driven by the desire to avenge real or perceived wrongs, it was inevitable that Zuma’s supporters would want to read similar motives into the actions of his detractors. The intransigence Zuma has displayed towards the ANC officials and NEC suggests that he, too, sees calls for his resignation as vindictive.

History will judge Zuma rather harshly. No one doubts that Zuma is a capable person, who, had he had opportunities earlier in life, could have risen to great heights. Zuma’s formal schooling did not proceed beyond primary school.

Despite that, given his native intelligence and a high level of motivation, Zuma was able to attain his matric while a political prisoner on Robben Island.

Rather than being remembered as the working class lad who rose to become president of his country, my fear is that Zuma will be remembered as the lad who let the side down by associating with dubious personalities who have cheated his people and abused his friendship.

When the ANC asked Mbeki to step down, he had the good sense and organisational discipline to comply, despite his own misgivings. Consequently Mbeki left office with his head held high and his dignity intact. By refusing to leave when so many have lost confidence in him, Zuma has engineered a humiliating exit for himself. 

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