What is born in chaos dies in chaos.
Out of the flames of a corruption trial, a rape trial, and a palace coup, rose the Zuma Presidency, a mutant gene-splicing experiment that fused populism, Marxism, conservatism, centrism, chauvinism, charm, smarm and epic nonchalance into one reeking, larcenous package.
Almost nine years later, the same men and women who enabled his ascendancy, and who stood by his side at the rape trial while placard-waving rent-a-crowds screamed “Burn the bitch”, have tried to nudge him gently toward the exit. Too refined and distingué to take him down with a single, felling blow, they have minced around their leader’s open political grave like the cast of a Christmas pantomime. Finally, inevitably, they got their way: on Valentine’s Day 2018, Jacob Zuma, the fourth president of the Republic of South Africa, ceased being Number One.
Zippity-doo-dah. Bust out the JC Le Roux.
The future will soon start busying itself with making sense of the past, which is always a gruesome process — one that South Africans usually fumble, if not as badly as the most. Regardless, what will seem astonishing to future generations, I think, is how little Zuma achieved in his nine years in office, how scant his meaningful interventions were, how marginal his impact was on either the physical or cultural landscape — and yet how much space he occupied in our heads, to say nothing of the damage he inflicted on both state institutions and the body politic.
He was the distant, shiftless, do-nothing patriarch, always fighting some court case or another, and yet capable of screwing shit up merely by breathing. He created nothing but vacuums for others to fill, which they did, either with genuinely radical movements like Rhodes Must Fall or Fees Must Fall, or with miserly, underfunded brown-shirt campaigns like Black First Land First, or what remains of the MKMVA. Those parsing his record will think, nah, surely there’s something missing here? But the only thing missing was — let’s just say it, a soul. He simply didn’t care. About any of it. Racism didn’t matter. Poverty didn’t matter. Inequality didn’t matter. Dead miners didn’t matter. Dead mentally handicapped patients didn’t matter.
Only Zuma’s belly mattered.
This strain of narcissism has come to define how an entire generation thinks about leadership. The planet has basically shrugged its shoulders and given up, and South Africa is no exception. The insanity of apartheid aside for the moment, the country watched as Thabo Mbeki, the second president after 1994, was driven insane by power, his intellectual mangling of the Aids crisis resulting in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths — a tally that has disqualified him from the usual revisionist, nostalgia-drenched reassessments former leaders often enjoy. Following the Pax South Africanus of the Mandela presidency — the brief interregnum between 342 years of dog shit and its Luthuli House mirror—Mbeki ushered in what the author JG Ballard described as the “normalisation of the psychopathic”. This is the defining phenomenon of life in any post-modern technocratic dystopia: the steady, paranoid Chinese drip-torture caused by a president rotting away in his or her own carcass, promulgating policies that are not just nonsensical, but have absolutely no relationship with physical reality on Earth. Occasionally they behave this way because of misplaced sincerity. More often, it’s because they are thieves.
Zuma, of course, is a thief. This should not have come as a surprise — he all but erected billboards across the country that screamed, pace the robbery that opens Pulp Fiction: “Any of you pricks move and I’ll execute every last motherfucking one of you.”
Indeed, his hubris, his cravenness, his incuriosity, and his genial abuse of power were already in evidence long before Schabir Schaik was forced to dish. Zuma emerged fully formed from the primordial ooze of the ANC war camps, where numerous accounts — most notably Ronnie Kasrils’ recent memoir, A Simple Man — have rendered him as a cunning, amoral chauvinist always scrounging around for a benefactor, or three.
Such was the toxic wave he surfed on his way to becoming a major national figure, and a particularly useful one — as Chairperson of the ANC for the Southern Natal region in the early 1990s, he brokered as much peace as was possible between warring ANC and Inkatha factions, and saved many lives in the process. He was destined for greatness, for his face to be chiselled onto friezes and for oversized statues to be erected in his honour. He was a Robben Islander dammit, first arrested as a teenager, a liberationist of the first order. History was waiting for him with a bouquet, $50,000/hour speaking engagements at Goldman Sachs brunches, and yacht time with Bono. If he’d exhibited some patience and competence, he’d have been a dollar millionaire a month after leaving office.
Instead, last year the governor of Imo State in Nigeria was stoned by residents after he unveiled a vast Zuma statue, built for no known reason, and to no known end. And also, this hunk of dreck:
Photo: President Jacob Zuma has officially opened the President Jacob Zuma Site of Arrest, which forms part of the Liberation Heritage Route of the Bokone Bophirima Province, where activists crossed as they went into exile to continue the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. Groot Marico, 4 October 2017. (Photo: GCIS)
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No question, worse politicians than Jacob Zuma have laid their heads at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential residence, formerly called Libertas. But he learned well from those assholes, or learned well with those assholes, or was cut from the same cloth as those assholes—I know not which, possibly all three. As a former intelligence operative, Zuma immediately started tightening the rivets of the security cluster, which once again became the shadow state, the state behind the state, the state that owned the state. He had help: two previous democratic-era presidents assisted him in destroying the National Prosecuting Authority and in disbanding the Scorpions for the far tamer Hawks. He culled and purged and shuffled until his Cabinet flunkies were able to stuff the boards of state-owned enterprises with pliant fools, or worse.
Zuma was principled and forthright about destroying any institution that was independent enough to face down corruption, and he blundered in this regard only twice: by appointing Thuli Madonsela as Public Protector in 2010, and Mogoeng Mogoeng as Chief Justice in 2011. He had no one but himself to blame for their outrageous flouting of Zumacratic conventions, for their criminal lack of sycophancy, for their bizarre adherence to both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Indeed, it didn’t all go according to plan, largely because there was no plan: Hell, it turns out, is the result of constant improvising. Even the direst predictions — usually of the hysterical “he’s gonna kill all white people” variation — were misaligned. Zuma was terrible in genuinely surprising ways. South Africans were promised a man of the people, a Marxist populist who would swing the country left after Mbeki’s warmed-over Thatcherism. Instead, he further entrenched liberalisation, corporatisation, and white monopoly capitalism.
Which is not to say he gave any indication that he knew what these terms meant. His lack of education and his innumeracy earned him the mockery of clever blacks and holier-than-thou whites, but that tailed off when his detractors realised that his ignorance was a weapon, and a dangerous one. The management of the economy was first delegated to the likes of Pravin Gordhan and his team of mighty technocrats, and then, when Zuma needed to raid the Treasury in order to sustain the State Capture project, it was placed in the hands of Gupta zombies. For some, State Capture was a genuine political project, a means of accelerating transformation and placing more economic power in the hands of those otherwise cut off from corporate South Africa’s endless munificence. For them, Mandela’s Liberalism was, as Conor O’Brian once put it, an “ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs”.
Not for Zuma, who loves masks, and never cared about such distinctions. For him State Capture was an extension of a 30-year effort to stay solvent, to pay for the tchotchkes and trappings to which he felt he was entitled. Like all tin-pot authoritarians, his taste was simultaneously cheap and outrageously expensive — his infamous Nkandla compound as falling apart before it was finished — and money was the result of an infallible magic trick: extend a hand into the deep space of some gangster’s horrendously decorated living-room, and—zing!—cash appeared by the plane-load.
The resulting cruelty of his countless heists went far beyond a seesawing currency, manic policy uncertainty, and the threats to the Reserve Bank and other key institutions. Like all narcissists, Zuma is entirely free of empathy, and thus never seemed to appreciate the fact that most people derive a sense of purpose from simple things: work; family; financial security; not having to getting the shit kicked out of them by cops; not having to proffer sex for municipal services. And so, the employment rate plummeted and the economy was downgraded, while the average citizen was forced to survive on handouts, which themselves turned out to be a white monopoly capital scam under the stewardship of Bathabile Dlamini and her pals at Net1.
Zuma herded ingrates like Dlamini into an endless daisy chain, and he made ingrates of otherwise competent people. Richard Mdluli, Brian Molefe, Dudu Myeni, Des van Rooyen, Shaun Abrahams, Lynne Brown, Mosebenzi Zwane, Hlaudi Motsoeneng — their names will clog up the history books like so many Lego blocks in a kindergarten toilet. Then there were the shysters booking them their Dubai accommodation: the Guptas, Eric Wood, Serge Belamant, Mark Pamensky. The rogues were so plentiful that journalism began to resemble custodial services in an asylum for the criminally insane.
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For all this—for all the stupidity, neglect and greed — South Africa is a shining example of a capitalist democracy in the 21st century. It’s a great place in which to be middle class, and a killer place in which to be rich. (I almost wrote that the one thing that Zuma didn’t fuck up was the weather, but this is of course untrue: South Africa remains by far the biggest polluter on the continent, and his regime was allergic to renewable energy in favour of Gupta/Glencore coal and the great Russian nuclear fever dream.) Fancy cars, fancy clobber and fancy houses in cities that thirstily slurped up water as if it falls from the skies.
This dogmatically plutocratic social construct was an arrangement that Zuma did not hope to disrupt, but only to shift away from the old guard and into the hands his own beneficiaries. This contributed massively to his downfall. The lesson of the last 18 months of Zuma’s tenure is not that he tried, and nearly succeeded, in blowing up the country in order to make a few bucks and stay out of jail. It’s that he finally roused institutional big capital to get off its ass and do something — and what it did was save itself.
The worm turned in December 2015, with the firing of the finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. This horrified the business establishment, which in turn mobilised allies within the ANC. The fight to the death between the “constitutionalists” and the “radicals”—between Team Ramaphosa and the Zuptoids — is what ended the President’s abilities to effectively anoint a successor that would shield him from prosecution once he left office.
In other words, money terminated the unhappy marriage that leaves us here: with a jittery ANC and a delusional outgoing president, who can continue to prosecute his campaign on the outside, where there remain many shock troops more than happy to do his bidding. With his brain rotting in his distinctively shaped head, with his snivelling hench-slaves gathered around him in a holy huddle, he is certain that he leaves the Union Buildings as popular as when he first entered them. And the ANC — the organisation that has sheltered and enabled and protected and enriched Zuma for decades — has done its best to humour him in the name of dignity.
Speaking of dignity, if there is one artwork that summarises the Zuma years, that beautifully and powerfully knits them together into a coherent mosaic, it was the impromptu performance that took place during Msholozi’s victory speech at the Independent Electoral Commission following the municipal election campaign of 2016. Four young women, defiant yet shaking with fear, stood in front of Zuma as he droned through his address, holding aloft four signs that read: “Khanga” (a reference to the garment Khwezi wore, and which, according to Zuma’s testimony, was ipso facto a sexual invitation in his “culture”; “I am 1 in 3” (a reference to the sexual assault statistics in this country); “Remember Khwezi”; and “10 years later” (perhaps the most devastating card, which suggested that nothing had changed since the rape trial).
I was there in the front row during that performance, and I have never seen anything like it in my years covering politics. It was the glitch in the Zuma operating system, exposing the whole thing for what is was: a bunch of shitty software programmed by a psychopath and a thief, and programmed to fail.
Cue the sober assessments of the Zuma era that will remind us how he ushered in a local anti-retroviral medication regime (fucking obviously), how he electrified millions of residences, how he built millions more, and how he didn’t summon the army to raze the armies of sunblock-wearing yogis who occasionally marched against him. He never killed a political rival, he never shut down a press house, he never choked a puppy and fed its liver to an out-of-favour minion. Despite 400 years of awful behaviour, he never seemed to hate white people — I mean, Helen Zille is still alive, for God’s sakes. He racially profiled less than probably any person in the country — the dude literally didn’t see colour, unless it was the burnt orange on a R200 bill. For all he stole, he never stole close to what his detractors imagine he did: he is not Vladimir Putin or Robert Mugabe, but a shoplifter shoving toiletries down his pants because waiting in line and paying is such a pain in the ass.
So goodbye, Msholozi, and good luck out there in the “private sector”, or feeding the robot chickens in Nkandla, or roasting away in poolside in a Dubai gangster flophouse. But beware, the world is a cruel dark place. You’re one of the men who helped make it that way.
Is a new era upon us? I’m by no means certain. So much has been broken; so much needs to be fixed. Regardless, it’s JC Leroux o’ clock. The hangover looms like Day Zero, but that’s tomorrow’s problem. DM
Photo: Outgoing ANC President Jacob Zuma sings on stage during the 54th ANC National Conference held at the NASREC Convention Centre, Johannesburg , South Africa, 18 December 2017. EPA-EFE/Cornell Tukiri.
An Oxford University study established that highly religious people and atheists are the least afraid of death.