This is one of the few times that Jacob Zuma has come out publicly to defend his track-record as president. It certainly appears to be the first time he has done this in the form of a written statement. While he has given speeches in the past, and made certain comments at political gatherings, issuing a statement of this kind, in English, is unlike his previous behaviour. The last former president to do this was, of course, Thabo Mbeki, who published a series of newsletters on Facebook defending his time in office.
The context of this statement may be important. Zuma appeared to elicit a large cheer from the crowd during the ANC’s January 8th Statement event in Durban earlier this month. This last Sunday, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said that he had “forgiven” Zuma, for the peculiar reason that a priest had spoken about forgiveness. The last time Malema did something because someone in authority told him to has not been recorded. And of course, there is an election coming, which some people believe could be important for the control that President Cyril Ramaphosa is able to exert on the party. Meanwhile, there seems to be a string of parties that have suddenly sprung up, tiny splinters that have some form of Zuma connection, such as the African Transformation Movement featuring Mzwanele Manyi, or Hlaudi Motsoneng’s African Content Movement.
It has been one of the curiosities of Zuma’s public comments about his record, that he has always shied away from the HIV/Aids issue. By any objective measure, a Presidency that sees life expectancy in a country rise by almost an entire decade in a short time would be a success. Because of the introduction of antiretroviral drugs, this is what happened during the Zuma years. And yet he has tended to avoid it. Not this time though: it is front and centre in his statement, explaining how much of a difference this has made to the lives of people.
Many of the “successes” that Zuma points to are really plans, or decisions, that have not been implemented. He suggests that it was a “success” to adopt the National Development Plan, or to make the “ocean economy an apex priority”. It is unlikely that many voters will see it that way, due to the lack of implementation. Where he is likely to hit the firmer ground is in his reminder that his government expanded the delivery of social grants.
His mention of improvements in basic education and in the matric pass rate may also aid him in some ways. But the claims that he makes in this regard may well be contested by many, who will feel that their children are still not receiving an education that actually helps them gain a job.
It is curious that on matters of the economy, Zuma is entirely silent. It would be interesting to know what Bill Clinton would have called Zuma on this, considering how he taught the world that campaigns were always about “the economy, stupid”. Unfortunately for Zuma, in most democracies, this is the most important issue. And Zuma’s track record on growing the economy is incredibly dismal. It always appeared that he had other priorities.
What may turn out to be the two most important aspects of Zuma’s statement, come closer to the end.
He turns to the election campaign of the ANC, accusing some in the party of falling prey to “defeatism”.
Then Zuma makes a series of claims in which he appears to be really attacking his enemies inside the ANC:
“The loss of Johannesburg and Tshwane was blamed, by some, ‘on Zuma’. But how many bothered to take the time to acknowledge that this was the same province where this same Zuma had been rejected by some in the provincial leadership, treated with embarrassment and most heavily criticised by the ANC itself? They did not want me to campaign for them in Gauteng – and they did not win any major metro. Even Ekurhuleni is governed now through coalition.”
It is true that there was much speculation during the 2016 campaign about the apparent lack of billboards featuring Zuma in Gauteng, compared to the rest of the country. It is also true that the Gauteng ANC’s leadership had been opposed to him for a long time.
However, it is surely also true that it was a good electoral strategy for the ANC to keep Zuma’s face out of the province as much as possible. His popularity in urban areas has diminished dramatically. Zuma himself, who was used to being mobbed in train stations and taxi ranks in the province, appeared more comfortable campaigning in person in rural areas and outside metros with greater media presence.
But more than that, Zuma also appears to have forgotten some of the key events that led up to that poll. The 2016 local elections were in August. In December 2015, he had fired Nhlanhla Nene, who is still waiting for his position at the Brics Bank. That decision lessened the value of those with pensions held in stocks. Zuma was already at war with Malema, who had had his entire party removed by force from Parliament. The Nkandla scandal was moving very quickly. In late March 2016, he and the Parliament were found to have violated the South African Constitution by the highest court in the country.
In other words, Zuma’s own track record was beginning to cause him problems with urban voters, those who had the most access to information and independent media. And this was felt the most in Gauteng.
Zuma goes on to say that he believes the route to victory in this year’s elections is for the party to be proud of what it has done, to explain that it is moving forward. His critics are likely to suggest that it is a thinly disguised plea for people to stop talking about “state capture” and what really happened during his time in office. It may also be a suggestion to the ANC that it stop talking about how it has “changed”, or is in a period of “renewal”, or “new dawn”. In other words, he wants people to stop concentrating on what happened, the Guptas, the corruption, the destruction of SEOs, the nuclear deal, handbags that Dudu Myeni received that were stuffed with cash, etc etc etc etc…
Of course, it is difficult to imagine the ANC campaigning on the progress that it has made in the last ten years. Certainly, the bump the ANC has received in the polls in the last year or so suggests that “Ramaphosa’s ANC” is received more warmly by voters than “Zuma’s ANC”.
The burning question for many in our politics may well be: what is Zuma’s real aim? It must be more than just trying to remain relevant. And a statement from Zuma is still unlikely to push the latest testimony from the Zondo Commission off the news agenda.
It seems clear that Zuma’s main agenda at the moment would be to continue to fight the battle that he lost at Nasrec, too, somehow, weaken Ramaphosa and stop his efforts to reform the ANC and South Africa. It may well be with this in mind that he states: “I never once blamed any predecessor or pointed to any perceived failing of any predecessor when I came to the leadership.” Which is rather rich, considering the fate his true predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
Certainly, Ramaphosa has appeared to try, often through a political wink or a nudge, to blame Zuma for many of our current problems. But, considering Zuma’s track record, it would appear difficult to expect him not do it.
The final point that Zuma makes, is that the next nine years are “a chance to take forward our true vision of ongoing Radical Economic Transformation, for which our country continues to cry out”. In other words, he appears to be sticking to the calls that he made in the final year or so of his presidency. This may well be a form of political messaging designed to enliven certain parts of the ANC, to remind them that he is still around and still a political force to be reckoned with.
That may lead to questions about why he, and those around him, feeling that he must do that; what is it that they are afraid of?
However, this statement does appear to be confirmation that Zuma is not sitting quietly at Nkandla. Rather, it appears that he is moving, planning, plotting a way forward. He will not be the only one. From his side, Ramaphosa is unlikely to be doing nothing either. The result of this contest is likely to define the ANC, and South Africa, for many years to come. DM
"All morons hate it when you call them a moron." ~ JD Salinger