The Great Unspooling: How the Spy Tapes came to define Jacob Zuma
Last week, the Democratic Alliance won a major victory in court: Zuma’s lawyers must release the so-called Spy Tapes, which they say will reveal that he should never have been exonerated of corruption charges five years ago. But there is a larger, more poignant metaphor in all this. RICHARD POPLAK explains.
In the far-flung future, when the four-volume biography of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is published, it will tell the story of an unspooling. If the books are good, they will relate the unravelling of the man. But more importantly, they will describe the unspooling of this country. Once, not so long ago, we owned a narrative. But as the past rolls languidly away from the future, South Africa’s truth uncoils into gentle susurrations of nothingness—endless hours of whispering into the void.
President Zuma, we’re told, remains untroubled by the routine controversies that have buffeted his career. I don’t believe that to be true. On 9 May of this year, when I saw him walk into the Independent Electoral Commission to acknowledge the fact that he was once again president of the Republic of South Africa, I saw that he was sick. I suppose we’re all decaying, but Zuma appeared to be doing it faster than the rest of us. On a day of great triumph, he appeared untriumphant: his skin grey, his gait laboured. We humans are animals, and we know when one among us is weak and wounded. Zuma, I thought, was done.
“Ask for me/tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” exclaimed Shakespeare’s Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, gloomily. I recalled those lines when the president pulled himself up to the lectern to address the nation, a mere avatar of the man he used to be. This was his second mandate, and yet he had not won a mandate. How was it possible, following elections that were (mostly) free and fair, to capture more than 62 percent of the vote and to lose? And if it were possible—which clearly it was—why was it possible? Anywhere else in the free world, and 62 percent is a landslide’s landslide. But somehow, the rules are different at the bottom of Africa.
Jacob Zuma’s winner’s speech was, in other words, a death rattle.
The reasons for that are as obvious as they are counterintuitive: Zuma was not thrilled at the prospect of another five years of life at the top. Like anyone on the downward slide of Power’s arc, Zuma was no longer powerful. Rather, he was subject to the Mephistophelian forces that had placed him on that same lectern five years ago. This re-upped Zuma presidency would be about payback, about taking care of business. His last task as a man of authority would be to install a Cabinet of loyalists, who would in turn be tasked with protecting him, which they would do in order to protect themselves. The president would exist within a cabal of cronies, all of whom would jostle closer and closer, cutting off more and more of his air. He knew, as he stood before us and tried his best to gloat, that he had ceased to be human, and was now a sort of ATM, dispensing Power’s munificent rewards. As Hemingway once wrote Pound, “Uneasy shits the ass that wears the crown, etc.” Meaning: the crown comes at a cost, and the price tag is often appended with a death sentence.
Later that night, Zuma addressed a more boisterous winner-takes-all ANC rally in Johannesburg’s CBD. He sounded resolute: he said the ANC would not cave or compromise; he reminded us that South African politics are a zero-sum game. He wore an ANC-branded leather jacket, and there were flashes of the Zuma of old—or, rather, a new version of old Zuma: crustier, angrier, caged, combative.
And then he disappeared.
The official story was that he had ditched a Cabinet meeting because of neck pain. For two weeks, he languished at home or in hospital, recovering. Yes, it had been a gruelling and lengthy election campaign. Certainly, he had lived a hard life, years of it spent in a maximum-security prison on an island in the sea. Undeniably, he contends with five—five!—marriages, where most of us can barely navigate one. True, his ticker had taken its immeasurable measure of stress. But the lack of information, even from an organisation allergic to transparency, seemed to offer all the information we required: Zuma was in bad shape.
How bad? Only his doctors knew, and knowing doctors, maybe not even them. But there is, of course, his latest Russian visit, where he chatted briefly with Emperor Putin, and then evaporated into the wilds of Moscow, presumably not to drink from R700,000 diamond-encrusted bottles of Hennessy served by failed super-models. Putin, vital with war, sat across from Zuma, denuded by shame: one man secure in an ironclad autocracy; the other weakened by an embattled but vibrant democracy. Putin’s evils pile up by the day; Zuma, despite the botch-job in Bangui and the nightmare in Marikana, will never be one of history’s devils. He cannot slaughter his enemies in broad daylight in the streets; he cannot waltz into Swaziland with guns blazing. For one thing, he has no ambitions of imperial grandeur. For another, he wears a choke collar wherever he roams.
But he has one remaining job, and that is to remove that choke collar from his own neck, so that the presidents who follow him are not similarly constrained. His work, then, is not entirely done. He must try to shunt through a bill that muzzles the press; he must empower the security cluster to pronounce on everything from the delivery of school textbooks to points of order in parliament. But his enemies are rounding on him, and they have their Shakespearian long-knives drawn.
Much has been said about the recent events that unfolded in the National Assembly, in which Julius Malema, one of Zuma’s numerous political offspring, turned on his Father with Oedipal intent. “#PayBackTheMoney”, demanded Malema in fluent Twitterish, referring to the taxpayers’ missing millions that underwrote Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. And what is Nkandla but the result of unchecked power—a place that Zuma never really wanted, but once it was on offer, slid so completely out of his (or anyone’s) control that it will come to define his legacy? A remote-controlled sluice system? When you are King, everything you touch must be gilded. And the glitter is accrued by the legions that fall in line to get what they believe they are owed.
And so the unspooling. A succession of scandals, perhaps explained by another uber-scandal: the Spy Tapes. And isn’t it appropriate that a leader who has slowly unspooled will eventually become undone, at least in part, by the banal miseries contained on tapes that will play to reveal—what, exactly? The Spy Tapes are proof of South Africa’s reversal of the principles of truth. They are said to contain evidence of the fact that intelligence officers under the charge of Zuma’s old nemesis, Thabo Mbeki, were hoping to use Zuma’s bazillion corruption charges to political ends, thus nailing him when it was most beneficial to their boss. The non-information on the supposed tapes would provide, we were told, absolute evidence of the fact that Zuma’s uncountable felonies were nothing so much as wedges to be used by his long vanquished enemies in order to erase him. The Spy Tapes, in other words, did not need to be heard. The National Prosecuting Authority agreed, and Zuma was exonerated.
As far as the Democratic Alliance was concerned, the Spy Tapes would make for some fascinating listening. They believed that the tapes would not prove that Zuma’s charges were politically expedient, and that it was absurd that he was ever pardoned. They claim that the arms of the legislature and judiciary loyal to Zuma, including the National Prosecuting Authority and other institutions designed to protect us, worked instead to protect the man that had empowered them in the first place. The Spy Tapes, in not saying what Zuma said they said they didn’t say, would reveal Zuma for who he was—a man who unspools truth, one micro-revolution at a time.
The DA sued for the release of the tapes; they battled in court for five long years. Last week, the highest court in this land ordered the release of the tapes. Which does not mean we will ever hear their contents. Zuma will keep fighting, for eons if necessary, to ensure that the tapes are never played in public. And with every appeal, with every interdict and legal parry, the contents of the tapes—the un-audio—screams louder and louder of his guilt. And yet Zuma’s ANC relies on silence to create the world.
It seems like a strange time to be bedeviled by something as pathetically analogue as tape. It reminds us of Richard Nixon, whose already compromised legacy was further crushed by the unspooling of the reams of racist, insane, inane, idiotic bullshit he recorded in the Oval Office. Hannah Arendt, writing of the Nixon years, noted that, “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes to hear.” Zuma’s ANC believes that South Africa wants only Good Stories, and that it is their job—their mandate—to ensure that only good stories are heard.
But Arendt also wrote that “the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.” Which is to say that Jacob Zuma, or the grey old man he has become, should remember that the truth has its own inviolable logic. It works by its own rules, and those who make a career of denying it are eventually buried by history’s ire.
One might call those sorry practitioners “grave men”. Ask for them tomorrow, and they are nowhere to be found. Which is how it goes with any great unspooling. DM
** Richard Poplak is the author of "Until Julius Comes", a comprehensive, irreverant take on the 2014 SA National Elections.
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa during a visit to the IEC results operaton centre in Pretoria on Thursday evening, 8 May 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA