Spinning yarns — why ‘Jacob Zuma Speaks’ should be shelved under ‘fiction’
A drive to revise the legacy of former president Jacob Zuma is under way. A book released in late 2021, shows that the only way to do this is to filter history through a lens of omissions and falsehoods.
Former president Jacob Zuma has promised on numerous occasions that he will release a tell-all book about his time in power. When the Jacob G Zuma Foundation advertised the imminent publication of a book titled Jacob Zuma Speaks, in December 2021, it appeared as if that day had come.
But it had not. Although the 271-page book is the first publication “endorsed” by Zuma, it appears that he had almost nothing to do with its contents. The book consists merely of a collection of speeches given by Zuma during his time in power, selected and commented on by the University of Zululand’s Professor Sipho Seepe and independent media consultant Kim Heller — the latter a former Gauteng official for the Economic Freedom Fighters before reportedly deciding that it was inappropriate for a white woman to hold such office.
The question of who could possibly be interested in reading such a publication is perplexing, though the Jacob G Zuma Foundation has claimed that copies have been flying off the shelves since its release. But the purpose of the publication is much more clear-cut: Seepe and Heller make no bones about the fact that their intention is to correct the historical record about Zuma as president.
“Zuma’s presidency never stood a chance,” they write. “It was foreshadowed by massive investment in misinformation and invective directed at his person… Coming from the humblest of backgrounds and with his pro-poor posture and policy orientation, [Zuma] was a threat to the status quo and preservation of elite interests.”
This is an essential argument in the armoury of the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction, which hopes to unseat President Cyril Ramaphosa and his camp in December 2022 at the ANC’s crucial elective conference. The narrative on which the RET faction relies is that Zuma and his allies have been crucified by political enemies and the media with the aim of maintaining and expanding the dominance of White Monopoly Capital and its black collaborators.
For that reason, the book is worth taking seriously. There are already some indications from the South African public discourse that the narrative is succeeding in certain quarters. To give what is not an isolated example, one Twitter user recently posted about his pride when his child’s school teacher instructed pupils to do a project on a South African president and his child had chosen the heroic Zuma.
How to reshape a legacy
The book is divided into five sections — economy, health, education, law and justice, and poverty, landlessness and inequality — presumably chosen by Seepe and Heller on the basis that these themes most effectively illustrate the successes of the Zuma presidency.
The speeches given by Zuma while president that are printed in the book are almost irrelevant. For a start, with the notable exception on significant occasions of former president Thabo Mbeki, presidents almost never write their own speeches. Then there’s the fact that political speeches often have a tenuous relationship to the reality of what’s happening on the ground.
This is, indeed, possibly the only interesting aspect of the excerpted Zuma speeches: that they remind us that the gulf between Zuma’s words and his administration’s actions was exceptionally vast. One of many such examples: in his 2016 State of the Nation (Sona) address, Zuma declared that: “Many of our state-owned companies are performing well.”
Fact-check: Zuma and the economy
Seepe and Heller contemptuously accuse Ramaphosa of using the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdown — which had an inarguably catastrophic effect on the economy — as an “alibi” to conceal Ramaphosa’s administration’s lack of progress on economic growth. In the same breath, they urge readers to sympathetically consider Zuma’s burden in trying to grow the economy in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis.
“Despite the very harsh economic pressures that beset the very early days of the Zuma administration, there were many accomplishments on the economic front,” they write, but fail to give a single convincing example.
There is abundant evidence to prove that Zuma’s presidency was in fact ruinous on the economic front. In 2007, SA’s annual economic growth had reached 5.4%. From 2009, when Zuma entered the presidency, to the end of 2017 when his fate was sealed, average economic growth sputtered at around 1.5% annually. It is impossible to blame the global economic crisis for the subsequent nine years of depressed economic activity.
Economist Magnus Heystek laid out the “true cost” of the Zuma presidency in a devastating 2019 op-ed, which considered 16 separate economic metrics. Among them: the (conservative) unemployment rate was 22.5% at the advent of the Zuma years, and 27.5% at their close. Electricity prices rose by 350% between the start and the end of the Zuma presidency. Total public debt doubled.
Fact-check: Zuma and health
One of the few areas in which the Zuma administration deserves genuine credit is for finally turning the page on the shameful years of Aids denialism and apathy that characterised the successive presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Mbeki.
Unsurprisingly, the two authors focus almost exclusively on HIV/Aids treatment when it comes to listing Zuma’s successes in the health field. But it is surely questionable to write, as they do, that “Zuma’s handling of the HIV/Aids pandemic stands in glaring contrast to Ramaphosa’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic”. While there are many legitimate critiques to be made of the local and international approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic, the obvious point is that Zuma took office at a time when there already existed decades of best-practice knowledge about handling Aids, in contrast to the utterly unknown coronavirus.
In the general introduction to Jacob Zuma Speaks, Seepe and Heller write that the book “does not attempt to whitewash any errors of commission or omission on [Zuma’s] part”. This is a blatant lie, since any discussion of health under Zuma is shockingly incomplete without mention of the monstrous Life Esidimeni scandal, which does not warrant a single word in the book. History will record that it was under Zuma’s leadership that 144 patients of psychiatric facilities in Gauteng died agonising and needless deaths in 2016.
Fact-check: Zuma and education
There were certain qualified educational improvements under the Zuma administration, including the ever-controversial matric pass rate, which reached what was then a record high of 78.2% in 2013. (Under Ramaphosa, in 2019 the matric pass rate reached an all-time high of 81.3%.) But the deceptiveness of the matric pass rate as an indicator of general educational progress was also highlighted by the shocking reveal in 2017, at the tail end of the Zuma years, of an international study finding that 78% of SA learners in Grade 4 could not read in any language.
It was also under Zuma that the SA learner drop-out rate reached 44.6% in 2016; and under Zuma that the country saw the biggest student protests in SA’s democratic history under the umbrella of the Fees Must Fall movement from mid-2015.
“[Zuma’s] announcement of fee-free tertiary education in 2017 was a priceless gift to many of the poorest children in the country who were able to access tertiary education for the very first time in the history of South Africa,” write Seepe and Heller.
Zuma had nine years in which to announce fee-free tertiary education; that he chose to do so in the dying hours of his presidency speaks for itself as a populist gambit. He did so in defiance of the findings of the Heher Commission he himself had appointed, which concluded that fee-free tertiary education was unaffordable in SA. Ultimately, all Zuma’s announcement did was to create a political headache for his successor and cruelly raise the hopes of SA youth in a way that could not practically be realised.
Fact-check: Zuma and law and justice
It is very difficult to discern what achievements within law and justice Seepe and Heller are suggesting Zuma should be credited with, as the bulk of their writing on the subject is devoted to congratulating the former president for questioning the authority of judges. The authors approvingly quote Zuma in 2009, shortly before assuming the presidency, as saying: “We need to look at [the Constitutional Court] because I don’t think we should have people who are almost like God in a democracy.”
This is presented as an indispensable and prescient insight that the rest of the country is only just recognising: “Fortunately a growing number of South Africans are waking up to the fact that judges are as human and as fallible as all of us,” Seepe and Heller write. Why it is “fortunate” that South Africans are questioning court judgments in the absence of any clear reason to do so is not wholly explained, but the overall intention is clearly to legitimise Zuma’s sense that he is the victim of a judicial vendetta.
Fact-check: Zuma and poverty, landlessness and inequality
This is probably the most important section of Jacob Zuma Speaks, because absolutely key to the arguments of the RET faction is that Zuma was committed to tackling poverty, landlessness and inequality in a way unmatched by any previous or subsequent SA president. The excerpted speeches show that Zuma did indeed spend a lot of time insisting on the imperative of addressing these challenges. The reality, however, was very different.
“Under the Zuma presidency, there was an amplification and acceleration of social grants and basic service delivery,” write Seepe and Heller. When it comes to social grants, another way of framing this is to note that, under Zuma’s presidency, more South Africans were forced to rely on social grants than ever before. Towards the end of Zuma’s time in power, millions of South Africans also risked losing this lifeline altogether thanks to the illegal bungling of social grants distributor contracts under Zuma’s Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini — not mentioned in the book, obviously.
The claim that Zuma’s administration should be credited with improvements in “basic service delivery” is one that can be challenged with reference to any number of different metrics, but let’s choose one that speaks to how the poorest of South Africans felt about service delivery under Zuma. By the end of his presidency, the number of service delivery protests — as measured by Municipal IQ — had more than doubled, from 107 annually in 2009 when Zuma took power, to 237 in 2018 when he stood down.
“Under the Zuma administration, there was a concerted effort to advance land justice and reform,” write the authors. It is simply impossible to square this claim with the findings of the November 2017 high-level panel on land reform and other issues, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe.
That panel found that by the last full year of Zuma’s presidency, 2017, “the budget for land reform is at an all-time low at less than 0.4% of the national budget, with less than 0.1% set aside for land redistribution”.
The panel wrote: “Recent land policy is being driven by opportunities for political alliances and elite enrichment (particularly in mineral-rich areas) rather than focusing on the structural drivers of enduring inequality in ownership and control over land.” Research released by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies in 2016 also found that the major beneficiaries of land reform in SA at that time under Zuma were politically connected urban businessmen.
When it comes to poverty, Seepe and Heller claim: “The presidency of Jacob Zuma made a positive and measurable difference in the lives of the poorest and most marginalised in society.” This is also flatly contradicted by the findings of Kgalema Motlanthe’s 2017 panel, which found that the percentage of South Africans living below the food poverty line increased from 21.4% in 2011 to 25.2% in 2015.
In setting out to write a book rescuing the legacy of Jacob Zuma, Seepe and Heller have succeeded in making the point that Zuma’s legacy can only be revised through a lens of omissions and falsehoods. Jacob Zuma Speaks serves to highlight the extraordinary hypocrisy of an administration that constantly claimed to be serving the country’s poor while doing the opposite in almost every conceivable way. In a bookstore, it belongs on the fiction shelf. DM168
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