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Why is Jacob Zuma still so popular?

May 2012. Brett Murray had just exhibited a painting titled The Spear, unearthing inspiration from a Soviet-era drawing of Vladimir Lenin. It portrayed then-president Jacob Zuma in a powerful pose coated in bold revolutionary colours … with his genitals exposed. 

The painting of that polarising penis captures two prominent perceptions of the former president. On the one hand there is Zuma as a revolutionary statesman in the tradition of Lenin, or, as some have sincerely claimed, Robert Sobukwe. Then there is the darker dimension to Zuma standing as post-apartheid’s grand villain: simultaneously sinister, incompetent and the state capture’s Machiavellian mastermind.  

The first perception deserves closer inspection. Although Zuma’s popularity is at times exaggerated, I think he has come to hold a cherished position in many imaginations. Uncovering why reveals the ugly failures of post-apartheid. Most importantly, expanding our understanding of Zuma’s popularity shows that our problems eclipse the influence of one man. 

Zuma rose to executive power partly through the tripartite alliance’s dissatisfaction with the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, and it hoped Msholozi would derail the ANC’s pursuit of neoliberalism. From a policy angle, Zuma’s first term was unremarkable. 

Faced with rising levels of inequality, a private sector habitually hostile to regulation and redistribution, systemic unemployment alongside a myriad incendiary social issues, Zuma’s ministers offered nothing transformative. No policies or legislation that challenged the unjust patterns of ownership in the economy, no creative solutions to crime or far-reaching reforms in healthcare or the education system. 

The accomplishments of his presidency largely consisted in expanding service delivery and social welfare, coupled with investment in infrastructure and public works projects which provided necessary, albeit temporary, employment. 

These actions deserve no applause. That some consider these achievements commendable signals how little we think the masses of poor and unemployed citizens deserve. Moreover, that these policies are praised as milestones unmasks our pathetic expectations of government. 

There is nothing laudable about a presidency that fulfils its basic, constitutional mandate to ensure people have access to life’s bare necessities. When we congratulate politicians for enacting the bare minimum, we acclimatise them to mediocrity and soon governance is viewed as an act of charity and not as a service to citizens. What Zuma supporters often overlook is that the expansion of service delivery and social welfare does not necessarily mean those services are of good quality. 

Throughout Zuma’s presidency there were urgent concerns over sanitation, dignified housing and accessible infrastructure. What is the use of water if it isn’t clean to drink or new schools if they lack basic resources?

To compensate for disappointment, Zuma appropriated radical rhetoric and exploited race. And in 2017 the term “radical economic transformation” (RET) became a part of our political vocabulary. Jeff Rudin accurately defined it as “BEE on steroids’’. It aims to deracialise our economy through the upliftment and production of a black business and bureaucratic elite. 

Black liberation will not materialise as lives free from poverty or the obliteration of class hierarchy. Instead it will manifest as black chief executives, managers, mining moguls or investment companies hailed as revolutionary achievements with all the centuries-old inequities prevailing. 

RET, as publicly articulated by elements in the ANC since 2017, leaves the free market intact, private property still reigning supreme and the core tools of wellbeing (quality education, healthcare, housing, food and leisure) commodified and therefore beyond the reach of most citizens.  

The more ambitious articulations of RET envision a state-led economy owning and managing strategic industries on behalf of citizens. Somehow people must believe that a governing party that has routinely displayed administrative incompetence or misuse of state resources for self-enrichment in the justice system, education or social services can now be trusted with such power. Since 1996, the ANC has wedded itself to upholding a capitalist order that has made existence unbearable for millions. Zuma’s promise of RET is no divergence from that path. 

If there is nothing radical or substantially transformative about RET, why do so many people within and outside the ANC place great faith in it? 

The unrest and looting in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July in order to ensure the former president avoids legal accountability for a raft of serious accusations are a case in point. One can no longer criticise Zuma without being shamed and accused of being an anti-revolutionary agent of white monopoly capital. 

Zuma presided over a tumultuous shift in how young black South Africans perceived post-apartheid. After 14 years of ANC neoliberal rule, many began to suspect that our social order is perhaps unsustainable. We were still terrorised by the outcomes of socioeconomic dysfunction — that depressingly familiar threat of unemployment, poverty and inequality. 

The phantoms of apartheid still shaded the general colour of inequity. And many of those once colonised still endured dehumanisation once thought to be the property of the past. 

In the early 2000s service delivery protests began to be a daily, multi-provincial occurrence. FeesMustFall voiced the dissatisfaction of born-frees who weren’t entranced by racial reconciliation and sick of being outsiders in their own society. The rise of grassroots movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the slaughter of miners at Marikana demonstrated the deep chasm between the ANC and the working class. 

Paraphrasing Frantz Fanon, RET and Zuma’s branding of himself as a would-be transformative statesman were attempts to stabilise a brittle postcolony and perpetuate the domination of South Africa’s elite.  

The lack of popular leftist movements, political parties and truly progressive voices in the media created space for the appropriation of radical rhetoric to go unopposed. Additionally some conservative and liberal commentators, alongside journalists — always stunned by the suggestion of policies which even slightly stray from the economic status quo — gave legitimacy to the impression that the post-Mbeki ANC was seriously advancing radical policies. Recall, for example, the endless outrage over the issue of land expropriation without compensation. 

One can’t ignore the urgent need for more detailed, vernacular and accessible policy analysis in the mainstream media. If the government proposes a National Development Plan, citizens deserve to know the crucial details of such a policy and the effect it may have on their lives, to assess its legitimacy and potential efficiency. 

The absence of such journalism or its inaccessibility dilutes our ability to question, critique and act against the government if need be. Furthermore, as is the case with RET, it allows politicians to get away with deception. 

Zuma’s greatest source of ideological power is that he stands as a figure of hope, one that can also be used to voice the despair and rage brewed by a society that has failed to deliver on promises for a better life.

There is a simmering yearning for revolt among young black people. Unable to secure jobs or spirits, drained by hard, unsatisfying labour, bearing witness to white opulence against black destitution, it feels as if the future has been stolen and we are left in a precarious present. 

This despair is not unique to our society. Around the world people are dealing with profound dissatisfaction and reckoning with the reality that history has not ended, despite Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that it had and that “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution is the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

Anxious and angry, we look for guidance and leadership that claims to disrupt the present order, challenge the powers-that-be and on our behalf reclaim the future promised by the ANC decades ago. 

Zuma and the RET faction will not bring the changes South Africa needs. The former president held executive power for nine years with no commendable outcomes. Instead the country endured a campaign of parasitic looting, fraud and corruption. 

Now more than ever people must realise that the future can be reclaimed. Paulo Freire argued that humans produce social reality and that through our ability to critically reflect and act upon the conditions we find ourselves plunged into, social reality can indeed be drastically changed. 

Haitian slaves did it in 1804. The Vietnamese did it in 1975, as did the Algerians in 1962 and millions of South Africans fought to reclaim the future for decades during apartheid. 

But these struggles, at times flawed and always a messy process, were sustained and achieved success through collective effort. We can no longer invest tremendous levels of hope in politicians who do not display any ability or concern to improve the lives of those they should be serving. To see through the mystification of elites such as Zuma and his cronies, and to combat their pernicious self-interest, to see ourselves and each other as the agents of history, is the only way beyond this unbearable present.

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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