Winner: Jacob Zuma; Runners-up: The Instigators of July Unrest & Zweli Mkhize

Winner: Jacob Zuma; Runners-up: The Instigators of July Unrest & Zweli Mkhize
Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Never ye mind that Jacob Zuma has been out of office for going on four years, or that his public appearances this year have been few and far between – 2021 was the year that proved that Zuma’s presence does not have to be seen to be felt, much like Santa Claus, but far less benignly.

Santa Claus knows what DM168 readers do not want, under any circumstances, in their Christmas stockings: an upcoming book recently advertised on Twitter by the JG Zuma Foundation, provisionally titled The Words of a President: Jacob Zuma Speaks. This “long-awaited” publication, to quote the Twitter post, contains “reverting” – which presumably means “riveting” – “stuff”.

But DM168 readers are unlikely to fall for this enticing proposition. That’s judging by the outcome of Daily Maverick’s “South African Villain of the Year” poll, which returned the verdict of Zuma in the kind of majority the ANC can now only wistfully dream of. Never ye mind that Zuma has been out of office for going on four years, or that his public appearances this year have been few and far between – 2021 was the year that proved that Zuma’s presence does not have to be seen to be felt, much like Santa Claus, but far less benignly.

There’s an argument to be made that leaders should be judged not just by their personal actions, but also by the actions that followers undertake in their name. By this standard, Donald Trump is doubly damned: not merely for the damage done while in the Oval Office, but also for the mayhem sown by his supporters in the wake of his 2020 electoral loss. Similarly, to the litany of destruction wrought by Zuma and his backers during his presidential decade must now be added the terrible losses sustained by the country in July 2021.

Zuma’s supporters have consistently argued that Msholozi himself cannot possibly be blamed for the July unrest: he was, after all, sitting peacefully in a cell at the Estcourt Correctional Centre while the country burned.

It is also open to question exactly how much of the ensuing destruction was indeed motivated by outrage over Zuma’s incarceration. Abahlali baseMjondolo leader S’bu Zikode told the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearings into the July unrest that if Zuma’s jailing had not been the spark for the riots, “something else would have”.

In Daily Maverick’s investigations, not one person caught up in the carnage mentioned Zuma’s name. Those who had participated in the looting said they had done so because they were poor and hungry, with conditions exacerbated by the Covid-19 economic crisis, and because everyone else was doing it too.

There is also a danger in painting Zuma’s jail sentence as the only catalyst for the riots. It presents the former president as a man of potentially unlimited ongoing influence and popularity, which may leave authorities justifiably anxious about ever attempting to encroach on his freedom again. This, while Zuma has still yet to be tried for the multiple counts of corruption, fraud and racketeering he faces in connection with the 1999 arms deal. The stakes are high, and the situation is complicated by the fact that nobody has yet been held accountable for planning the unrest.

But certain facts are undeniable. Among them: that 12 Twitter accounts identified by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change were responsible for high-volume tweeting of incitements to violence before and during the July unrest, and all of them happened to be pro-Zuma, RET-aligned accounts. That among the most prominent tweeters of calls to action was Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile. That there is evidence of WhatsApp messages coordinating attacks on infrastructure from pro-Zuma factions within the ANC, and that tensions were probably heightened by expressions of outrage at Zuma’s jailing from prominent politicians, including Durban’s current mayor Mxolisi Kaunda. And that visible among the smouldering ruins of shopping malls in the aftermath was one recurrent graffiti message: FREE ZUMA.

While S’bu Zikode’s words to the SAHRC should be weighed heavily, the obvious fact remains that South Africans had been poor, hungry and desperate for years before Zuma’s arrival at the Estcourt prison gates – in no small measure as a direct result of the Zuma presidency – and yet had never previously embarked on the focused campaign of violence and destruction that followed his jailing. From this perspective, at whose feet should we lay the bodies of the 342 people who died in the riots but Zuma’s?

Perhaps the most angering feature of this all is that it was, from at least one rational perspective, eminently preventable. The only person to blame for Zuma’s 15-month jail sentence was the former president himself, who could have avoided prison entirely by simply presenting himself once more at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture that he himself authorised. In 2020, Zuma’s team had pursued every potential legal avenue to excuse him from a repeat appearance, including a shameful attempt to smear Judge Raymond Zondo as biased against Zuma based on a past romantic relationship.

There were those who argued that regardless of his Zondo Commission defiance, it was simply inhumane to jail a man of Zuma’s age and reportedly perilous health. There was a social media orgy of “whataboutery”, as others contended that it was an insane indictment of SA’s democratic order that it was Zuma, rather than any murderous apartheid president, who had ended up behind bars.

There was a stunningly strange think-piece penned by the DA’s Helen Zille, in which she affectionately argued that Zuma deserved empathy because he was a feudal chief who simply lacked the ability to understand constitutionalism. And then the time for genteel debate was over, as the country exploded into violence and the deadliest two days in SA’s democratic history commenced.

Zuma would end up leaving prison after two months, with his medical parole authorised in suspicious circumstances. Those were two months in which the country sat shell-shocked and grieving, still tallying the catastrophic losses of the damage wrought in Msholozi’s name, and with many asking: For how much longer must South Africa carry the curse of this ruinous man? DM168

South African police apprehend suspected looters on 13 July 2021 in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: James Oatway / Getty Images)


It is a profound indictment of South African law enforcement that the first runners-up in 2021’s SA Villain of the Year are a group of people who continue to skulk in anonymity. They are the instigators of the July unrest, but their names are still publicly unknown.

Sure, a handful of people have appeared in court this year, charged with incitement of violence. But Hawks head Godfrey Lebeya told the SAHRC hearings into the riots that none of the individuals “under investigation” looked likely to be charged with treason, because that was not “an element” detected in their inquiry thus far.

Those in the dock for incitement have included a Patriotic Alliance councillor; the woman behind the pro-RET “Sphithiphithi Evaluator” Twitter account; and a blowhard DJ who styles himself as a self-elected Zulu leader. Noticeably absent: any truly close connection of former president Jacob Zuma, and any leadership figures from the highly factionalised KwaZulu-Natal ANC. This, despite the fact that, as reported by Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee in July, an intelligence document indicated the probability that organisers “worked through disgruntled ward councillors and other local ANC leaders”.

From start to finish, the story of the July unrest has been one of a shambolic failure of the state’s oft-misused intelligence apparatus. DM168

Former minister of health Zweli Mkhize. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)


In the first few months of 2021, former health minister Zweli Mkhize and his department officials were already the target of criticism for the delayed arrival in SA of Covid-19 vaccines. In retrospect, this stressful period may have been the highlight of Mkhize’s year.

In 2020, Daily Maverick journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh spotted an unusually high amount spent by the government on Covid-19-related communications: at that point, about R82-million, with little in public view to show for it.

Myburgh discovered that one company in particular had been the beneficiary of this expenditure: Digital Vibes, run through a front director by Mkhize’s longtime aide Tahera Mather. In a series of exposés, Myburgh revealed that the bulk of money had been diverted to the pockets of Mather, her family, and the family of Zweli Mkhize. Despite Mkhize’s vehement denials of wrongdoing, a Special Investigating Unit probe subsequently vindicated Myburgh’s findings.

While SA was already aware that the looting of Covid-19 funds was rife, the news that the country’s own health minister had been involved in the pilfering of money meant to be used to help save lives came as a particularly acute betrayal. DM168



Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

Below are the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    He is no 1 but from the wrong end.Nobody comes close to him,he so, so nearly destroyed south africa.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Can anybody argue with the champion Villain of the year, or for that matter the last 10 years? Runners-up a bit more tricky, because as JC pointed out, the gab between the 1st choice and the rest is as big as the Grand Canyon.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Being a villain is a team effort and JZ is a worthy winner of the leader of the pack.

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