South Africa

South Africa

Out-trumping Trump: Zuma boards another populist flight of fancy

Out-trumping Trump: Zuma boards another populist flight of fancy

President Jacob Zuma has gone from linking the ANC’s political term to the return of the Son of God to now comparing himself to Jesus. He is however revising the new New Testament to include “zombies”, “witches” and “Western Powers” who might not be denying God but are apparently trying to destroy the BRICS bloc. Zuma might have watched and marvelled at how demagoguery transported Donald Trump to a stunning victory in the US presidential elections and decided to shake out his old bag of party tricks. But in South Africa, Zuma's populist routine is too played-out. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY. 

In a rib-tickling segment on The Daily Show last week, Trevor Noah outlined the startling similarities between America’s president-elect and the South African president.

Calling Trump and Zuma “brothers from another mother”, Noah spoke of how South Africa has become “a very troubled state” after electing a “charismatic anti establishment president”. He sketched out how Trump and Zuma have multiple problems with the law, both projected themselves as “the man of the people” in their presidential campaigns, both their support bases are in rural areas, both were accused of rape, and both have been referred to as “Teflon” politicians because of their ability to survive whatever comes at them. They also have remarkably similar views on the media.

The other similarity between the two leaders is the use of their children as business fronts, in a prime position to gain financially from government and their fathers’ political connections. The term “state capture” made an international debut when Noah explained Zuma’s “tactic” of using state institutions against his opponents, such as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Perhaps Zuma has also noticed the similarities between himself and the man weeks away from moving into the White House. That might explain why he has resorted to his old strategy of playing victim and trying to whip up the emotions of his grass roots supporters. Like Trump, Zuma is also conjuring up indeterminate demons that he claims are attacking him, the ANC and the BRICS bloc of nations.

Straight out of the Trump playbook, Zuma also made an astonishing assertion that he had knowledge of criminal misdemeanours of his detractors but would not reveal the evidence.

Speaking at rallies in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, Zuma called on ANC members to defend the party and himself from enemy attacks. According to City Press, Zuma said Western powers and white capital using people as pawns to further their agendas.

“Our enemies buy certain people to be used as zombies… Let us stand with the ANC and build a strong alliance. They do not want the ANC because it is doing good for the country. Even Jesus Christ was crucified because he came here to save us,” Zuma was quoted by the paper.

At the rally in Pietermaritzburg on Friday, Zuma made the rather bizarre statement that he was watching people who had accused him of stealing while they themselves were involved of corruption.

“It’s like those who steal today – they say Zuma steals while they are the worst thieves. They have investigated me all over but they are finding nothing because I’m not doing anything. If they have found it, it would be over [for me]. Those are the thieves and I know they are stealing. I’m just watching them. I know them,” Zuma said, according to the Sunday Times.

Zuma also promised to write a tell-all book during his retirement. “I know who are the witches at work. It is fine when the enemy is at a distance. But when it is your friend, it is not easy because they know your weaknesses.”

What is the purpose of all this rambling? 

When Zuma was under fire during his trials, this tactic to ramp up emotion and play the victim of a powerful political conspiracy worked in his favour. Now he is under pressure, with society and sections of the ANC turning on him, and his legal woes mounting. The Public Protector’s State of Capture report laid out how his presidency has been compromised by his relationship with the Guptas and his allies in key state institutions are in disarray.

Zuma needs the old strategy to work for him again. He is trying to recreate the mass following that rallied behind him before he became president. The populist rhetoric worked wonders for him, even though he said precious little about what he would do as president.

Trump campaign strategy was pretty much along the same lines. He managed to convince over 61 million Americans to vote for him on the basis of falsehoods, bigotry, fear mongering, wishy-washy policies and unrealistic promises. Trump was able to delude people into believing he would deal with the Islamic State terror group without explaining how he would do so.

“I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “Unfortunately, I’ll probably have to tell at some point, but there is a method of defeating them quickly and effectively and having total victory… All I can tell you it is a foolproof way of winning, and I’m not talking about what some people would say, but it is a foolproof way of winning the war with ISIS.”

But there is a major difference between Zuma and Trump – which is why Zuma’s strategy is bound to backfire.

When Zuma rode the populist train the last time, he was the outsider. He was fired from government and, together with his backers in Cosatu, the South African Communist Party, the ANC Youth League and sections of the ANC, was challenging the establishment. 

Now Zuma is the president. He IS the establishment. He has the power over the government institutions that he claimed were conspiring against him. Yet in his mind, he is still the interloper. Why else would he gather information about the criminal actions of others and not uphold the law and his constitutional obligations and act on these? If the president cannot protect the state from criminality, who can?

Either because deep down he feels unworthy of the position or perhaps does not understand his function and responsibilities as president, Zuma is still trying to play the role of the victim on the outside that needs the support and protection of the masses.

This time however, the people of South Africa have been living under his presidency for seven years. Most people know that Zuma is his own worst enemy and that he has squandered the goodwill granted to him when he first became president. He has shown himself to be incapable of leading and has opened the state to being devoured by corrupt and inept people.

Zuma’s other problem is that the populist space he once used effectively has been claimed by someone else. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema has branded himself as the champion of the poor and the working class, and has left little space for others to compete in that constituency – particularly someone central to the establishment.

Zuma is now the representation of the enemy of the advancement of the masses and no matter how much he tries, he cannot reinvent himself as “the man of the people”.

The truth is that the clock is ticking on the Zuma presidency and that the best he can wish for is to limp off into retirement without his legal troubles and legacy haunting him. It is too late for a comeback, particularly on the back of a populist wave. Zuma now has to make way while bigger and more powerful populists rise, and they might prove to be even more dangerous than he is. DM

Photo: (Left) The then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares “You’re fired!” at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter; (Right) Tears well up in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma’s eyes as he listens to speeches in his honour at an election rally after his appearance in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 04 February 2009. EPA/JON HRUSA.


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