South Africa

A presidency of calamity: Jacob Zuma’s doomed legacy

By Ranjeni Munusamy 30 June 2015

President Jacob Zuma was never anointed by the liberation greats to rise to the top. Neither did he become leader through automatic succession. Zuma fought hard. He climbed his way to the top through a phenomenal fight-back campaign, during which he undertook to correct the mistakes of his predecessors and become a president more in touch with the people of South Africa. How did he go from that vision to a man derided as the country’s worst leader, with multiple scandals and failures haunting his legacy? From Nkandla to Marikana, Al-Bashir to Operation Fiela, it is astounding how Zuma’s presidency hurtled from crisis to crisis. But one thing going for him is that he remains securely in power. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It really riles President Jacob Zuma to be compared to former President Thabo Mbeki. It was one of the reasons Julius Malema was booted out of the ANC – “unfavourably comparing the leadership style” of Zuma to that of Mbeki. But Zuma wanted to be the president Mbeki was not – in touch with ordinary people, making the ANC the paramount decision-maker rather than an individual and promoting unity and cohesion in the alliance rather than diminishing the importance of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP). He also wanted everyone to play nicely in Parliament and be the kind of leader people loved, related to and admired.

He was to be the everyman. The guy who understood your problems and had the power and wisdom to do something about it.

That was at the heart of his 2007 campaign for the ANC leadership and the basis on which he beat Mbeki. In his closing address at the ANC’s 52nd conference in Polokwane, Zuma’s first speech as the party’s president, he said: “Comrades and friends, the incoming NEC (national executive committee) and I accept the mandate you have given us with a full understanding that you can withdraw it at any time, if you feel that we are not serving you in a manner that you want to be served. That is the essence of democracy. Leaders lead through the will and graciousness of the people.”

He also wanted to restore the ANC to being a united force after years of intense strife during his battles with Mbeki. “We are all ANC members who just happened to prefer a different set of leadership collectives as it is our democratic right. It is our collective task to repair whatever damage or harm may have been caused as we were building up towards the conference.

“Let me emphasise that the leadership collective will serve the entire membership of the ANC, regardless of whether a person voted for Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma or any other member or leader. We cannot have a Zuma camp or a Mbeki camp, there is only one ANC. None among us is above the organisation or bigger than the ANC,” Zuma said.

With regard to the tripartite alliance, Zuma said: “This alliance is based on mutual trust and respect and should be defended and protected by all ANC members. Coming out of this conference we have a clear mandate to build and strengthen the alliance, to nurture it and defend it.”

And on the ANC Youth League, Zuma said:” Comrades, the ANC has always had the fortune of having a vibrant and robust Youth League. The League remains consistent in pursuit of what they believe is right, in defence of the ANC and democracy. The Youth League continues to play its role as a historical agent of change and the source of energy for the ANC.”

This was all in acknowledgement of the organisations that supported him during his legal battles and his rise to power. How is it then that under his leadership, the ANC Youth League, Cosatu and SACP all reached the lowest point of their lifespans, all unravelling and battling to show the reasons they still exist.

As the alliance meets this week for a protracted bonding session – at Zuma’s behest – it will be interesting if any of the delegates has the courage to raise this issue. Amid all the backslapping and boot licking, what really needs to be put on the table is the state of factionalism and dysfunction in the ANC and its leagues, Cosatu and the SACP under Zuma’s leadership.

But this is not all that went wrong.

In Zuma’s inaugural address to Parliament when he became president-elect on 6 May 2009, he said he was overwhelmed and humbled by the responsibility given to him. “As President of the Republic, I will do my best to lead the country towards the realisation of Madiba’s vision of a truly non-sexist, non-racial South Africa, united in its diversity.

“With the support of my organisation the ANC, as well as all South Africans, I hope to lead the country on a path of friendship, cooperation, harmony, unity and faster change.”

He went on to say: “The next five years will depend on us as public representatives to serve them with dignity and respect and to maintain the decorum of Parliament, which is the face of our democracy. Our people have high expectations. As the executive, we will do our best to be more hands-on, more accessible and to deliver on our commitments.”

Being “hands-on” and “accessible” was to be the trademark of the Zuma presidency. He wanted to reduce the social distance between the people and the political leadership – the antithesis of the rigid, officious Mbeki presidency.

The next part of Zuma’s speech is almost comical when you consider the current context:

“We also intend to start a new chapter in relations between government and the opposition. We reiterate that it should be possible to work with opposition parties on issues that are in the national interest. While appreciating a robust opposition, we also trust that we will be able to move slightly away from the dogmatic approach, which turns every issue into a contentious one. On the side of the executive, we will also need to try to avoid being over-defensive, and not view all criticism from the opposition in a negative light.”

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

And there was a time Zuma did not fear accountability or parliamentary question time. Speaking of his time on the House when he was Deputy President, Zuma said: “Members who were part of the last Parliament will confirm that I was a very well behaved member. I attended sessions and presented myself timeously for the fortnightly Deputy President’s question time. I dutifully answered all questions, amid occasional heckling from the opposition benches.”

This all changed when the R246 million security upgrade of Zuma’s Nkandla residence became the defining issue of his presidency. It changed how he saw himself and the president he wanted to be. Instead of being the leader who was not overly defensive, he became the leader the ANC has to spend its time and energy protecting and defending.

Under Zuma’s presidency, patronage networks have flourished, none so brazen as his relationship with the Gupta family that flaunted their proximity to the president for financial and personal gain. Their abuse of a military facility, Waterkloof Air Force Base, has been the worst example of exploitation of the state without consequence.

Under Zuma’s presidency, 13 South African soldiers died in a foreign peacekeeping mission under dubious circumstances. SA National Defence Force troops in the Central African Republic were attacked by rebel fighters in March 2013. They were supposed to have been helping with training, but some reports suggested they were there to guard business interests. To date, the full account of what happened and why have not been disclosed. The incident has been swallowed into the whirlpool of controversy of the Zuma administration.

But the biggest blight on Zuma’s legacy will be the Marikana massacre, which saw the democratic state mimicking the Apartheid regime in a mass slaughter of civilians. Apart from all the issues the massacre exposed – this includes the appointment of incompetent leaders in senior positions in the state and the collusion between business and politics – the handling of the human trauma and suffering has been shocking. Zuma had projected himself as a leader who cared deeply about ordinary and poor people. But the handling of the community of Marikana and the victims’ families, up to the release of the Farlam Commission report last Thursday without notice or arrangements for them to access the findings, showed a leader who was insensitive to their trauma.

The unravelling of the legacy Zuma built during the liberation struggle continues as his second term unfolds. The Zuma administration has implemented a human rights-unfriendly operation to clamp down on foreign nationals, under the guise of an anti-crime operation, and makes no apology for the stomping on civil liberties.

The flouting of a court order to allow a war criminal, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to leave the country, has compromised the constitutional system and rule of law. The government seems unbothered by this and appears content to mislead a high court and the people of South Africa in a flimsy damage-control exercise.

With this trail of destruction behind him, how does Zuma remain so firmly in power? He has shut down on dissent in the ANC, and anyone who has the ability to rebel is beholden to the president for their positions. He is also in the position to influence the election of his successor and other officials in the ANC. Zuma has no need to be accountable to the party that deployed him or the people he is elected to serve.

But while he might escape accountability, his legacy is irredeemable. While Zuma had hoped that history would remember him for being a people-centred president who championed the National Development Plan, his legacy is defined by one shocking scandal after the other.

Nothing he can do now can repair his threadbare legacy. Perhaps the history will be forgiving if he avoids further disgrace over the next four years. But that seems to be an almost impossible ask for the master of self-sabotage of his own vision.

All the dreams of better future for South Africans, the commitment to improving lives, the determination to re-build the ANC into a force for good – those ideals got sucked into the vortex of cronyism, corruption and incompetence. What was once a noble vision is now a man-made disaster. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma takes oath during his inauguration ceremony at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, 24 May 2014. EPA/SIPHIWE SIBEKO / POOL

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