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Op-Ed: Unfinished business and legacies of the Zuma period

Op-Ed: Unfinished business and legacies of the Zuma period

In removing Jacob Zuma, it is important to identify his legacies. While he is obviously identified with corruption and State Capture, Zuma also represented a form of warrior masculinity that was conducive to violence. Socially, he actively advanced static, patriarchal cultural positions. Renewed commitment to gender equality and dynamic and emancipatory social visions is needed. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Many will evaluate Jacob Zuma’s legacies by considering their impact on the economy, the rule of law, public institutions and similar factors. This article considers some of these questions but also examines the ways in which Zuma’s legacies affect the very notion of being a South African in collective and individual contexts.

Loyalty to the country

The most common reason given for Zuma’s removal from office is his involvement in acts of corruption and State Capture. It is my view (and one buttressed by the expertise of Professor James Grant, now a practising advocate) that the notion of corruption is insufficient to cover what is entailed in State Capture, in which it appears that Zuma has been extensively implicated. State Capture is not simply enrichment by fraudulent dealings, at the expense of individuals or the state. It is systemic.

The relationship between Jacob Zuma and Schabir Shaik was one of corruption, where Zuma was paid funds on the expectation that he would deliver favours through his position in government. Likewise, Zuma may have received various gifts, or assistance in acquiring some properties or other items that he has not declared and were used in order to win his support for this or that tender or contract. That would also constitute corruption.

None of this is on the scale of State Capture that goes beyond defrauding a citizen or the state. It entails the ceding of decision-making powers belonging to the state or information sufficient to decisively influence a decision, to outsiders, in this case the Gupta family and their associates. This has, notably, entailed appointment of ministers and boards of State-owned Enterprises based on the interests of the Guptas.

To cede a power of the state to non-state entities or individuals who do not bear state responsibilities is to undermine the functioning of the state and that is surely treason? James Grant (@JamesGrantZA) asked on Twitter on 14 February 2018: “What is the difference between causing or allowing armed mercenaries to storm parliament to seize power and selling it?” He then provided the legal definition of high treason:

A person commits high treason if, owing allegiance to the Republic of South Africa, she unlawfully engages in conduct within or outside the Republic, with the intention of

  • Overthrowing the government of the Republic;
  • Coercing the government by violence into action or inaction;
  • Violating, threatening or endangering the existence, independence or security of the Republic; or
  • Changing the constitutional structure of the Republic.”

Clearly commission of treason is not restricted to acts of violence against the state but includes acts which undermine the existence or sovereignty of a state by other means, as in (c) above, which refers to acts which undermine the existence and independence or security of the state, without necessarily resorting to force.

If or when Zuma faces charges related to State Capture, these ought to be more serious than any of those he faces on the long-deferred charges that were dropped by Mokotedi Mpshe in 2009. What Zuma and his cohorts could face in relation to the Guptas is not merely charges of corruption and even the concept of “State Capture” is insufficient to cover what it entailed. It may also be a charge of treason.

That is unfinished business the state needs to discharge, which it has failed to do during the presidency of Zuma. This is not to wreak vengeance against a leader who has fallen. It is part of restoring legality. In order to strengthen the social fabric from a recurrence of such actions, we need to redefine the word patriotism (said to be the refuge of scoundrels but capable of bearing an emancipatory meaning) and breathe into it a meaning that encourages all South Africans to take seriously their allegiance to the republic.

That also signifies a state that cares for its people by taking their freedoms and well-being seriously. I am speaking of the spirit found in the Preamble to our Constitution:

We, the people of South Africa… adopt this Constitution… so as to- …Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and Build a united and democratic South Africa….”

Renewal of South African democracy also means taking stock, not only of unfinished business directly in relation to Zuma’s personal legal responsibility and liability, but that we consider, evaluate and address the other social and political legacies of this period. These include:


The entire Zuma period, even before his rise to the state presidency, has been marked by violence, either related to him personally or by political or state associates. Zuma’s rape trial and various statements that he made then and subsequently marked the imagery with which he sought to surround himself as that of a “warrior masculinity”.

It was not simply violent masculinity, which it was, but also an attempt to resurrect heroic masculinity associated with precolonial warrior resistance to conquest and the soldiers who fought in MK. Not only Zuma, but many others defiled the heroism associated with some songs of the liberation struggle by using these in a time of peace, in order to serve their own interests. By so doing they endangered the peace, limited the possibility of entrenching the principle of non-violence and also created a climate where resort to violence was normalised, whether in police killings and violence, in Marikana but more generally in the society at large.

All of this made women and LGBTIQ people more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been to violence, and indeed Zuma’s utterances and actions reinforced that vulnerability.

The question of culture and social relationships

Although Zuma is not a theorist, his period as president entailed a range of ways of understanding and constructing South African social relations that were communicated to the South African public by words or deeds. Partly this was through statements he made, or his own behaviour set up as an example. But also, it was through ways of relating to some sections of the population, notably African men and women as opposed to others, in signifying what is appropriate for a woman. Not to act in that way meant that one could not be a proper woman. Thus he said: “People today think being single is nice. It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they give extra training to a woman, to be a mother.”

Notion of culture

Zuma saw his presidency as making a stamp on people’s conception of cultural questions, especially what he claimed to represent for Africans. Conduct or ways of being that departed from this were, instead, said to be the practice of white people or contrary to African beliefs or cultural systems.

The question of culture needs to be taken seriously – that is, the cultures of all the peoples of South Africa. All cultures are worthy of recognition and respect. That does not mean respect signifies a passive and uncritical relationship. No culture can grow or develop its full potential if it is not in dialogue among its adherents but also in relation to those who practise other cultures. That is one of the reasons why Paulin Hountondji prefers the word endogenous, referring to local cultures in interaction with other cultures, to indigenous which tends to refer to static, insulated cultures of a people. He sees that word having the tendency to be exotified. (P. Hountondji, “Introduction” In: P. Hountondji, ed. Endogenous knowledge: research trails. 1997. Dakar: Codesria, 17-19

In addition, there are some practices that are part of or represented as part of cultures or customs like ukuthwala or any version of child marriages, and other purported customs. These are unacceptable because they are abusive or physically violent and/or patriarchal or coercive.

Singularity of meaning?

One of the grounds of battle over culture relates to the presentation of a particular interpretation of culture as representing the only or authoritative meaning of that culture or cultural practice. Sometimes this is a romanticised version of culture that may or may not find resonance with very many people, sometimes it is in fact the use of culture or pseudo culture to justify patriarchal and abusive actions, as was the case in Zuma’s rape trial.

The claims of some to be authoritative custodians of the meanings and scope of cultural practices need to be opened to questioning instead of allowing some to present themselves as able to make pronouncements for all who practise such cultures.

Colonial and apartheid knowledge projects

None of this is intended to suggest that there should not be a critical approach towards inherited colonial and apartheid cultural and knowledge systems. Both colonialism and apartheid were not simply methods of domination but also knowledge systems. Insofar as these were demeaning towards black people, especially Africans, that needs to be countered. The question is how this is done.

The answer to colonial/apartheid cultural and knowledge imperialism is not simple assertion of an African alternative. Every alternative must itself be scrutinised and not assumed to be serviceable in the present by virtue of its origins being traced to centuries of usage. The Zuma cultural project was fundamentally one that treated cultural practices as essentialist, that is, having one meaning, and being unchangeable over time. Insofar as people’s lives have changed we need to create the space for them to relate to cultures in a dynamic way that accommodates how they now want to live – provided harm is not caused to others and the practices are in line with the Constitution.

Africanism vs non-racialism?

In interrogating the cultural and social legacies of the Zuma period we need, on the other hand, to caution against a tendency to view all resorts to Africanism and pride in African values and customs as inherently exclusivist, tribalist, divisive and antagonistic to unity and non-racialism. It is quite legitimate for people to have pride in their origins, history and identities, albeit subject to debate. This is different from chauvinism, which treats identification with a particular ethnic group as a basis for self-identification, which is also an assertion of superiority over others and antagonism to other groups. Thus, T-shirts worn at the Zuma rape trial referring to Zuma as “100% Zulu” were provocative and chauvinist.

We must respect the cultures of all. But there needs to be a dynamic interaction between all our people, engaging one another within particular adherents of cultural practices and those who follow other norms. That respect is not antagonistic to, but enriches non-racialism and unity as a people.

Rebuilding democracy

There may be an opportunity to rebuild our democracy. In order to do this, we need to reflect carefully on the legacies of the Zuma period. If that is not done it may well be that some anti-social and abusive practices will live on. The democracy that many have long sought to build was meant to be one that respected all its inhabitants. That task, which goes beyond addressing the aftermath of Zuma, needs to be tackled in earnest without any illusions about how difficult and time consuming it may be. If we want this to benefit all, we need to understand that freedom is never finally realised on any particular day with any specific event. It needs to be constantly widened and deepened. That means that all of us, in or out of government, need to find ways of making this happen. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a professor attached to UNISA and (until the end of March) Rhodes University. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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