South Africa


Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, Suicide-Bomber-in-Chief

Former president Jacob Zuma addressed supporters in Johannesburg after appearing at the State Capture Inquiry on 15 July 2019. Photo: Greg Nicolson

‘How come I am a participant in this huge enterprise known as Reality?’ wondered the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, back in 1843. ‘Why should I be a participant? Is there no choice in the matter? And if there is no choice, then where is the manager — there’s something I want to say to him. Is there no manager? Then to whom shall I address my complaint?’

If Kierkegaard were a denizen of the fraying South African Reality, circa 2019, he’d do well to address his complaints to Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Famously, Zuma served for two terms as the president of the country; before that, he was deputy president for six years; before that, a National Chairperson of the ANC; before that a ranking member of the organisation’s exiled leadership; and before that — deep breath — a struggle hero of some repute. If anyone has had a hand in creating (some might say: in destroying) modern-day South Africa, Zuma is your man.

Take it up with him, Soren.

But good luck getting anything out of Msholozi. He is sitting this week before the State Capture Inquiry, spinning Reality into an unrecognisable splat of protoplasm. He has chosen the Zondo commission — an institution he was bound to create by the previous Public Protector (more on that office in a minute) — to cast himself as a simpering victim of plots, vapours, potions, witchcraft, assassins, spy-craft, misinformation, dry skin and general unkindliness.

Men and women are compelled to govern for all sorts of reasons. Zuma became president to stay out of jail. He needn’t have bothered — the South African elite, of which Zuma is very much a member, has never done time for any infraction. That said, now that his tenure has met its ignominious end, he’s clearly nervous about the possibilities of landing up in the slammer. Others in his former faction feel the same. Their efforts to avoid justice have become known as “the fightback” — presumably against President Cyril Ramaphosa’s still feckless anti-corruption campaign — and Zuma’s appearance before Deputy Chief Justice Zondo has opened another front in that battle.

Zuma and his allies have two intersecting priorities: to invert in the public’s mind the meaning of “State Capture”; and to undermine the commission itself. As far as the former is concerned, a loosey-goosey allyship has been engineered between Zuma’s KZN mafia, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s Luthuli House wrecking crew and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters — call them the Radical Economic Transformation-istas. In principle, they hope to undermine Ramaphosa’s oppositional clean-up faction, of whom Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan is the most prominent celebritician, and to cast them as the real state capturers.

It’s a fairly boring and obvious process, but the damage inflicted on the fabric of this fledgling democracy is considerable.

Take the Public Protector’s office, for instance. Under Thuli Madonsela, the PP chased down government malfeasance, issuing report after report that laid bare the cravenness of the Zuma years. Madonsela’s work proved that Zuma’s regime was dedicated to plundering the state in a systematic fashion, but it did something else as well: it showed how the gangster state worked in league — or rather, on a symbiotic track — with the formal economy.

White monopoly capital could never have dreamed of a more pliant servant than Jacob Zuma — he was feted on the 20th anniversary of this country’s democracy by nothing less than Goldman Sachs, avatars of the Establishment, white or otherwise.

The Reality, in other words, ain’t so pretty. So, we must change Reality. And it is once again through the PP’s office that the South African narrative is being (re)configured. Busisiwe Mkhwebane has issued several reports that have been shot down for their ignorance of the law and for her office’s mandate, but she has been remarkably effective in casting Pravin Gordhan as a villain worthy of dogged and relentless pursuit and Ramaphosa as compromised and corrupt.

Believe us when we say that no one in the ANC comes close to being perfect, but there is a choice between two universes here. One in which the country stands a chance. And one in which it doesn’t.

We’ll let you guess which outcome Zuma is after.

In the weeks leading up to the former president’s marquee appearance before Zondo, Mkhwebane released a report fully resurrecting the zombie Rogue Unit/Ivan Pillay SARS narratives, demanding that Ramaphosa appropriately censure Gordhan within 30 days. (The reports have, of course, been interdicted and it is unlikely that they’ll stand up to any legal scrutiny.) As sinister as these factional WMDs may be, Mkhwebane has lately been spinning stories regarding plots hatched against her — dark whispers of poisoners and men in black helmets with blacker intent. Her side gig is perpetuating a classic misinformation campaign, loaded with allegations and intimations — and entirely free of provable facts.

This is apartheid-era dissembling, and it reeks of the crypt.

Into these newly fermenting conspiracies saunters Jacob Zuma. His methodology is so clunky and obvious that it seems baffling that he could have occupied positions of authority for so long. His tactic: to cast himself as a victim of local intelligence agency complicity with “the US” — by which we think he means the CIA. Also: to cast himself as a victim of numerous attempted assassination plots, one of which allegedly involved suicide bombers (as if there were an endless supply of insurgents willing to sacrifice their lives in order to help Johann Rupert.). And, of course, the inevitable: Zuma, the former intelligence hack, was being victimised by a trio of apartheid-era spies, including a mining minister who served in his Cabinet, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, who has (not so incidentally) alleged that the Guptas demanded he help them swindle the Optimum coal mine from Glencore.

There are many places for you to read the specifics of Zuma’s scattergun allegations. As for the substance, his statements are so childishly outsized that they beggar belief. But already they’re circulating on social media forums, insinuating themselves into the biochemistry of the fightback narrative. This was the point: on the weekend before his testimony began, Twitter was working overtime to lay the groundwork, with the EFF trolls leading the way. The fallen men of the ANC, they are saying, are victims of a three-decade conspiracy with its roots in the apartheid regime. We must pity these men, not imprison them.

And yet, by any measure known to humanity, Zuma has been spectacularly successful — one of the most successful men in the history of this country. Had he bothered doing something positive with that success, we’d all be balling it in hovercraft and jetpacks. Instead, he decided to improve and expand the ANC’s profane looting machinery. Now, Zuma is casting himself as a maligned sap targeted by relentless plotters — and as the very bumpkin ignorant fool that whiteys and clever blacks have always insisted he’s been.

Poor me!” wail the powerful chauvinist male populists from Trump to Erdogan. “Save me from the shadows!”

As James MacGregor Burns notes in his classic text Leadership:

Those who are filtered out by the system are not necessarily blocked from power; they may change the system to find a place in it, in the fashion of Latin American generals or Greek dictators, or they may turn to extralegal or revolutionary opportunities.”

The South African system, with its rule of law, is designed to filter out crooks and shysters. And yet, the crooks and shysters are in the process of not just changing the system to find a way in, but of altering Reality to centre their victimhood. It’s a heinous thing to watch, and they need to be reminded that the real victims are on the streets, swamped by one of the world’s highest unemployment rates in a vastly unequal society — a situation that Zuma must be made to answer for, preferably from a jail cell.

It’s time that, as per Kierkegaard, we demand answers from the manager. Near-death-by-apartheid-suicide-bomber isn’t going to cut it. DM


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