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Defenders of Jacob Zuma’s last stand: Strong devotion...

South Africa

Pre-Prison Diaries: Analysis

Defenders of Jacob Zuma’s last stand: Strong devotion, deep emotion, mostly from KZN

Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma gather outside his Nkandla homestead on Saturday 3 July 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

The nature and strength of Jacob Zuma’s support could determine if there will be any dangerous confrontations as part of the end-game in the process started by Zuma’s refusal to testify at the Zondo Commission.

As the situation in and around Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal continues to evolve fast, it is difficult to assess the full extent of the support that former president and convicted criminal Jacob Zuma enjoys. There are many aspects to it, and it is possible that some people who support him may well change their attitude, and either intensify or weaken their support.

The nature of this support and its strength could be crucial to the final outcome of this process. It may also determine if there will be any dangerous confrontations as part of the end-game in the process started by Zuma’s refusal to testify at the Zondo Commission.

Because of the nature of our politics, and the fact that there are so many role-players and constituencies, it can be difficult to accurately assess how much support Zuma has, past the angry mobs and drunken “vets” looking for some action.

To attempt to understand the issue better, a series of considerations may help.

There is the breadth of Zuma’s support (how many people, or how big a proportion of South Africa supports him), the intensity of that support (even with just a few supporters, if their belief in his cause is intense enough they could cause serious damage), and then, who supports him (what positions do they hold and do those positions allow them to intervene in a significant way?).

First, how many people support Zuma?

There have been very few opinion polls run on Zuma as an individual, while towards the end of his presidency, his approval rating fell to around 25%.

However, there have been no organised shows of support, outside of KZN, or even outside of Nkandla and Durban. It should be remembered, however, just how difficult it is to arrange a protest during the lockdown. The absence of protests province-wide cannot be full proof that Zuma has no support outside of KZN.

Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma gathered outside his Nkandla homestead on Saturday 3 July 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

What it does suggest, nevertheless, is that there is no widespread and intense support for the former president.

There is also ample evidence that many people are indeed pleased that Zuma may go to jail, that in fact there could be much more support for the Constitutional Court’s decision than for Zuma’s defiance. This may be because of the way in which testimony at the Zondo Commission has completely changed the narrative of our politics. And while people are happy that he’s sentenced, they will be unable to go out on the streets during lockdown Level 4 to publicly demonstrate that happiness. 

Zuma has been such a dominant figure in our politics for so long, it is very likely that most people in South Africa made up their minds many years ago about whether they support or oppose him.

And little has happened to indicate that more people support him now than they did before the Constitutional Court ruling.

Then there is the intensity of the support for him, with the adjacent question of why people support Zuma in the way that they do.

First, it is clear that to most of his supporters this is a matter of principle. It is not a transactional relationship as there can be no expectation that Zuma is going to achieve high office again and thus reward those who support him. This cuts across the board, whether it be Tony Yengeni or an ordinary citizen from Nkandla. 

Some of Zuma’s supporters will have been his long-term allies. Suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule has worked with Zuma for many years, and is showing how important their relationship is; there’s also the fact that Magashule needs any friend he can find right now. There will be many others like him.

Then there is the complicated question of identity.

There is evidence that some people in Nkandla, and KZN, support Zuma because of his ethnic identity.

As long ago as 2007 Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana suggested in a paper that “Zuma’s deployment to KwaZulu-Natal revealed the ANC’s privileging of geographical and ethnic origin over political origin in its politics”. In other words, Zuma’s ethnic identity was important to the ANC, and a reason why he was deployed to that province rather than to national politics.

After that period, in 2009, during Zuma’s first presidential election as ANC leader, the party won more votes in KZN than it had in the past.

But it is possible to overestimate this factor.

The ward in Nkandla where Zuma resides has often been won by the IFP, and not the ANC, despite the fact that he lives there. This suggests there are limits to this dynamic.

However, there is a multiplicity of reasons why people support Zuma, which is why assumptions need to be made carefully.

A general view of supporters of former president Jacob Zuma who gathered outside his Nkandla homestead on Saturday 3 July 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

There may well be a spectrum to this.

For example, for some, identifying with Zuma may be a similar dynamic to those who backed Donald Trump in the US; it’s about their ethnic identity (in the US about an explicitly white identity), and their rejection of elites on the East and West coasts.

But for others it may be more akin to participating in the Black Lives Matter protests, again in the US. The protests were a rejection of a racist lived reality, where some people were discriminated against, or even killed, because of their racial identity. So it may be that some feel their identity is under attack.

This dynamic around identity is much more difficult to manage than others, because issues of identity can be non-negotiable. You can’t ask someone to change how they feel about their identity or their language, or how they see the world as a result of that. That means the usual transactional forms of politics, where people can be moved from one side of the spectrum to the other, are not available.

As a result, attitudes in terms of supporting Zuma may be hardened, which explains the intensity of the support. Even if there are relatively few people supporting Zuma, the intensity of feeling may be more difficult to police, because the chances of violence are higher.

Then there is the issue of the positions that those who support Zuma hold.

It is clear that there are still some members of the ANC National Executive Committee who back him. Tony Yengeni and Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu were both present at Nkandla on Sunday. But the suspension of Magashule may have weakened this aspect significantly.

One of the people ordered by the Constitutional Court to execute the arrest of Zuma is National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole. He was appointed to his position by Zuma. While it would seem virtually impossible for him to not act in this case, he may still have some residual loyalty (as an aside, the KZN commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, was once appointed as acting national police commissioner… and appeared to act against political influence from Zuma; he was then removed from that position by the very same Zuma).

Another person mentioned in the court order is Police Minister Bheki Cele. Coming from KZN he will surely have had a long relationship with Zuma. It is unlikely that the highlight of that relationship was the fact that Zuma fired him as national police commissioner after a scandal involving the proposed rental of a building for the national police headquarters (in the end, many years later, a court overruled the findings of an inquiry into his conduct).

Then, within the Zulu royal family, it appears there are some who support Zuma. And yet, the former IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi has said that the Zulu king, Misuzulu kaZwelithini, has told him that he did not authorise the presence of the amabutho, or Zulu regiments, at Nkandla over the weekend. Buthelezi has further described their presence as treasonous.

A general view of AmaButho and supporters gathering outside former president Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead in KwaZulu-Natal on Sunday 4 July 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

While support within the Zulu royal family during a time of succession will be hard to assess accurately, it could be significant if there is a confrontation.

Of course, in the end, it may not be the support that Zuma enjoys that matters, but rather the decisions made by the courts, and a few individuals within the police and the state. It is the decisions that they make that will count. For them, the key aims may well be to avoid confrontation where possible, while also avoiding the accusation that they are allowing Zuma to act as though he is above the law. DM

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  • Just a rag, tag and bobtail rentacrowd made up of old warriors and the unemployable. More disturbingly is the presence of national ministers who, instead of doing their jobs and upholding the constitution, are seen flopping around with the mob. It’s so far beyond disgraceful that not even Trump could have organised it.

  • Support or no support, tribalism or not, none of this excuses Zuma, his followers or even the ANC for not upholding the rule of law whenever it doesn’t suit them.

  • I suspect that you are overcomplicating the matter. Zuma’s support comes mostly from a) tribal affiliations within KZN, b) those who want to weaken Ramaphosa within the ANC.

    Those in category b) include Magashule, Yengeni and possibly Sisulu. Generally it includes those who have benefitted by corruption or hope to do so in the future.

    It is interesting that the EFF has been rather quiet. A weakened Zuma is to their advantage in that it leaves them as unrivalled champions against WMC. A strengthened Zuma weakens the ANC and that also plays to their advantage.

  • It is time that the State bares its teeth and calls the bluff of this rent-a-crowd rabble and arrest Zuma. The authorities must use all the legal means afforded them by the constitution to defend the interests of South Africa instead of bowing to this megalomaniac and his lapdogs.

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