Teflon man: JZ survives to fight (yet) another day

ABOVE: A current screen shot of the MK Party’s home page, now featuring ‘President’ Jacob Zuma as ‘party leader’. Until recently, the website did not refer to Zuma at all, and also did not name a leader.

PHAKAMISA MAYABA  / The Electoral Court’s decision that Jacob Zuma can indeed stand as a candidate in the upcoming national election has many commentators – including yours truly – eating humble pie. Not only is the former president having the last laugh, he is also adding to his fabled reputation as the ultimate ‘Mr Teflon’, surviving a barrage of challenges during the five years since vacating this position.

We thought Section 47 of the Constitution was clear enough on the matter of his candidacy, and that was just about it. But laws and their technical meaning are clearly a different kettle of fish to the views of lowly commentators. At the same time, given that the IEC has appealed against the decision, this may still not be how the story ends.

You’d remember that when Zuma was Number One (do excuse the pun), he survived no fewer than eight motions of no confidence. Despite state capture allegations looming large, the damning Gupta leaks, the Weekend Special ministerial appointment that saw the rand plummet overnight, cabinet appointments by the Gupta brothers, and the former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe wailing on national television, the man still wielded enough clout to anoint his ex-wife as his proposed successor at the 2017 ANC Elective Conference.

EFF leader Julius Malema meets former president Jacob Zuma for tea. Image: EFF Facebook page.

Clearly, he continued to believe in his own myth. Why wouldn’t he? When, in 2005, then president Thabo Mbeki pushed him out of the deputy presidency (after a court had determined that a ‘corrupt relationship’ existed between him and his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik), it seemed like the end of the road. That same year he faced a rape charge whose particulars remain popular material for cartoonists and standup comics. Expecting Zuma to sink into obscurity in far-off Nkandla, Mbeki then took to pushing for a third term as president of the ANC.

Indeed, Mbeki not only doubted that Zuma lacked the wherewithal to lead the country, but mistrusted him as well. Among others, this emerges from a fascinating memoir by Vusi Mavimbela, a prominent member of the ANC in exile, who later served as a senior adviser to both presidents Mbeki and Zuma. (This account has, in turn, been drawn from an article by article by Yonela Diko titled ‘Ugilikanqo is gone: Is the ANC finally free of the Zuma albatross?’, which ran in City Press on 3 January.)

In the early 2000s, Mavimbela writes, while briefly serving as director-general of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), he sought to mend the fences between Mbeki and his then deputy, Zuma. He had worked with both for almost 30 years, and was saddened by the degree to which their relationship had deteriorated.

Mbeki’s response was frank and impatient. ‘Klaus,’ he said (using Mavimbela’s old nom de guerre, clearly trying to appeal his foundational political loyalties), ‘how do we leave the health and future of the ANC and government in the hands of such people? The man has no capacity to do the things we said need to be done. … Right now, there is this blooming story about corruption, Schabir Shaik and so on. Do we want corruption to be acceptable and normal business in this government? That is precisely what will happen if we place our future in the hands of such a man. Is that what you people want?’

Mbeki had clearly not read the room: at that stage, the ‘Klauses’ were outnumbered by a steady stream of career politicians as well as Communists and ‘workerists’ who found Mbeki’s neo-liberal proclivities antithetical to their socialist agenda. Rather than abandon Zuma, they took to reworking his image, parading him as a working class hero, an ‘unstoppable tsunami’ who would put ‘a chicken in every pot’ if and when he reached the corner office in the Union Buildings. This was an imperative; save a seemingly flawed man to save face with the common folk.

Former COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
He has repeatedly expressed regret for supporting Zuma’s leadership bid in 2017. Image: Facebook.

How perplexing it all was to see stalwarts as principled and upright as then COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi cheerfully leaping onto the bandwagon. Their scheme paid off, and on 18 December 2007 a grinning Zuma obliterated Mbeki by walking the leadership vote at the 52nd Elective Conference in Polokwane. Many of those who celebrated that victory have since disappeared, and some are answering to new masters, but almost all of them look back on that episode as the day that the wheels really began to come off.

President Cyril Ramaphosa would gain leadership of the party in 2017, and proceed to do unto Zuma what Mbeki had attempted all those years ago; fire him for good. But by then, the damage had been done. In trying to save one man, the ANC had laid waste to whatever remained of a party struggling to keep up appearances.

To spool back a bit, Diko writes that the charges of corruption brought by the then Scorpions against then deputy president Zuma ‘signalled the birth of ugilikanqo (the hairy monster). This was a political monster, and we had no way of knowing what its devastation would be. Would it begin to wreck everything in its path for its own survival, or would it bow out and give the new country a chance? From that fateful day in July 2003, the entire state apparatus would be subjected to one singular goal: keeping Zuma out of prison.’

Following the Electoral court’s ruling, the man or monster they call Nxamalala has resurfaced, using a name straight from the ANC struggle handbook to have a go at harpooning the very organisation he once vowed would rule ‘until Jesus comes back’. The court rulings in favour of the uMkhonto weSizwe Party will no doubt reinvigorate the leadership and excite the masses, augmenting the street legend of the man who’s never been to university, but ‘see what he does to these ‘booked’ ones’.

The idea of the artful dodger who always manages to evade his manifold enemies is ever popular in simpler spaces. While the pundits speculate on what the EC’s decision might mean (the full judgement has yet to be released), Zuma is apparently destined for the National Assembly. So what does this hold for the ANC, the prospect of a coalition government, but most of all for our beloved Mzansi?

A 2024 election poster of COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota. Image: Facebook.

We need to recall the breakaway of the Congress of the People (COPE). It too nicked a name the ANC considered part of its history and, with former ANC stalwarts in its ranks, it seemed set to threaten the ruling party. But it soon turned out to be a damp squib. Why?

Mbeki’s squabbles with Zuma worked to isolate the former from those comrades who had not enjoyed a first-world education in exile, and were at the coalface of the internal protests against Bantu Education. These things have the potential to make or break a politician’s street cred. Mbeki often failed to remember exactly who most of his voters are. He appeared to think of himself as represeenting the essence of the ANC, and preferred to associate with those who, like himself, were of an intellectual bent.

But the political landscape had changed considerably since the days when Madiba would sing Mbeki’s praises. Those rising to prominence were those not overly preoccupied with complex policy formulation and the niceties of macroeconomics – they were simply bureaucrats who who just wanted to do the minimum to stay in their jobs, and get paid handsomely. Unlike Mbeki, a bookworm who reads into the wee hours, these guys knew what time to knock off.

Hence, when people thinkers and intellectuals like Mbhazima Shilowa left, it was a matter of good riddance, and business as usual for those who’d grown wary of Mbeki’s high-mindedness anyway. Citizens grew weary of promises that non-performing ministers would be fired, only to see them recycled or promoted. Which is exactly why Zuma’s first move when he assumed power was to flood the party with such lacklustre elements.

Zuma has now reinvented himself as an advocate of Radical Economic Transformation, shuns liberal rhetoric for the hardline stance of severe punishment to social ills. and positions himself as the one who will right the wrongs of Ramaphosa’s pandering ANC – enough to have the ruling party sweating bullets. It won’t be the first time that the ANC has been accused of selling out. The spoils of jobs and economic prosperity simply hasn’t trickled down fast enough, effectively forcing the ANC government to defer the promise of ‘a better life for all’.

Add Zuma’s cult-like status in KwaZulu-Natal, and the fact that the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has made inroads in that province as demonstrated in recent by-elections, and the prospect of the IFP shunning the Multiparty Coalition and tagging along with a homeboy is not too far-fetched. Nor that of the EFF doing the same. Julius Malema may have been particularly hostile to Zuma during the former’s presidency, but when Zuma ran into trouble with the Zondo commission, Malema was also among the first to visit him for tea. And we need to remember that personalities continue to play a dominant role in our politics.

So where are we? The loudest parties are drawing attention, while those which opt for conservatism and low-profile campaigning are being drowned out. Parties that seemed like rising stars in the latter part of last year have seemingly disappeared. Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous, but noise, like personalities, is handsome political currency in this part of the world, especially on the eve of a national election.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap