Jacob Zuma at 70: Jake's getting serious
President Jacob Zuma turned 70 on Thursday, and he marked his birthday with a simple cake and champagne ceremony at Luthuli House. That’s the one where the media was invited. As this rather momentous milestone passes, so does the image of a dancing, giggling man of the people. The man once dubbed ‘The Lothario of Nkandla’ has become very serious. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
It turns out that Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma’s middle name is prophetic. (The man who makes you laugh, then stabs you.) Or, if you like, a crafty schemer who puts you at your ease before striking a crippling blow.
In his first public appearance alongside the other African National Congress national officials, Zuma was a lecturing and prickly presence, shifting between feigned boredom when his secretary general was speaking and irritation when he finally deigned to answer a question. His awkward giggle in the middle of a State of the Nation address is but a faint memory these days.
No other group can testify better to Zuma’s change than the ANC Youth League. It’s not just that the league and the president have had a spectacular falling out – it’s much more than that. It is the ruthlessness with which Zuma has dispatched of this new thorn in his side.
Photo: Zuma smiling over his 70th birthday cake. DAILY MAVERICK/Jordi Matas.
Malema has been three times suspended by his own party. He’s been expelled once already, and is desperately clinging on to his one remaining vestige of salvation – an appeal to the national disciplinary committee of appeals, and then to the national executive committee. So far, it doesn’t look promising for Juju. Malema’s defenestration by the ANC is so thorough, so breathtakingly cold-blooded, that it cannot but be a loaded gun pointed at the entire league. Look what we did to your leader. Make a squeak and we’ll cut you in half.
“We are prepared to die for Zuma,” Malema said to a crowd in the Free State in 2008. “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma”.
To a crowd of students in 2012, Malema said, “It is under President Zuma that we have seen the youth of the ANC being traumatised, being expelled from their own home. It is under President Zuma we have seen a critical voice being suppressed. We have seen under President Zuma, democracy being replaced with dictatorship. We have seen an intolerance… people, who become impatient with the youth…”
Ah, politics. Not so much the art of the possible as the muddy tread of aligned interests.
At 70, Zuma is in remarkably good nick. He can still hold a note and jump about (albeit with some stiffness about his joints) with more alacrity than men half his age. His secret, apparently, is a lifetime of prudence and monk-like dietary delicacy.
Watch Zuma do the jive:
When Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as the deputy president of the country in 14 June 2005, a man who had been largely anonymous – what with his background as the ANC’s top spy – embarked on a long public relations campaign. He got the unions and the populists in the party on his side. He galvanised them with his signature tune “Mshini Wami”, an upbeat militant number that sent paranoid whites knocking over their cappuccinos and leaping for their keyboards to stamp out outraged letters to editors and poisonous YouTube comments. The song rang out loudly outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court, where the disgraced leader fought to keep himself out of prison, first on corruption charges then for rape. And when the Polokwane conference came, his waves of supporters sallied forth to vanquish the hated enemy and place him on the throne.
Watch Jacob Zuma sing Mshini Wami:
And when his time came to be president, the expectation was that a man of the people who lead at last, a welcome change from the aloof and elitist Mbeki.
“It is still unclear what his presidency will mean for South Africa,” the Economist in April 2009, soon after the national elections. “So far, in terms of policy, he has been something of an enigma. He fought this election as the champion of the poor and a man of the people, in contrast to his more cerebral predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. He has even suggested setting up a hotline for the public to report corruption directly to him. Mr Zuma has talked much of bringing the fruits of liberation to South Africa’s poor. Now he has to get on with it.”
Zuma’s attempts to be a mere phone call away from the people haven’t turned out that well. A careful reading of the statistics published about the presidential hotline show that while some complaints get resolved, the people are still largely unhappy.
Lately, the president has had little cause to sing and dance. His response to the Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision that his appointment of Menzi Simelane as the national director of public prosecutions was unlawful simmered with quiet rage. So did his response to the chorus of condemnation when he appointed Mogoeng Mogoeng to be the chief justice of the Constitutional Court. When the government announced that there would be a review of the decisions made by the Constitutional Court, the response from the Union Buildings was just as vinegary.
But it is with Malema that Zuma has really stopped smiling. The ANCYL has consistently stuck to the line that it is being persecuted for having radical views on the economy. They’ve branded Zuma as being intolerant of dissent. The question is how wrong are they? On two separate occasions, Malema was charged with sowing divisions by unfavourably comparing Zuma to Mbeki. On the face of it, how is that a bad thing? More to the point, now that a dissenter has been so humiliatingly silenced, who in the ANC will dare speak out against the man from Nkandla? And should we not be worried that this newfound vigour for crushing thorns in the flesh might be transported from Luthuli House to the Union Buildings?
South Africa may come to miss the grinning man of rambunctious sexual appetites when he is replaced by a grim bureaucrat who swiftly dispenses with opponents.
In a rather mournful post on his website after Malema was summarily suspended, constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos wrote, “One must be careful to cheer on this silencing of debate and dissent inside the ANC merely because the person being silenced is someone with whose views one does not agree and whose downfall one might applaud. Today they come for Malema. Tomorrow they might come for you or me.” Quite. DM
- Save the last dance for me in Mail & Guardian.
Photo: Jacob Zuma – now a more sober leader. DAILY MAVERICK/Jordi Matas.