He was there with me during the ‘nine wasted years’, Zuma says of Ramaphosa
He took it ‘very seriously’, Jacob Zuma said, upon hearing the ‘nine wasted years’ statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018, attributed to his almost two terms in office. He said Ramaphosa ‘was there’ during those allegedly wasted years.
‘It was quite a statement, and much as I did not take much care of what people say about me — they made me look like an animal, feral — I thought this was very serious, because he was a man who had been part of government, number two in the country.”
Zuma made the remarks at the official launch of Jacob Zuma Speaks (a limited number were released and sold in 2021) on Friday at the conference centre of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board offices in uMhlanga, where his eponymous foundation has held office space for years.
But this was not only a moment to criticise his detractors. It was meant to be a joyous occasion in which Zuma — the eternal underdog fighting for his credibility against the state, the ANC and an ostensibly misinformed public — was able to answer softball media questions interspersed with congratulatory messages and a live music performance in his honour. Just like the old days.
No questions on the Arms Deal trial, ANC factional battles, or his dwindling support in the party and province were allowed.
Setting the tone, Zuma ascended the stage to the sounds of Oh Why, Lord, Why? a Brook Benton song that speaks about racial injustice and victimisation.
He started speaking only after Benton’s classic had come to an end. During the song, he cast his eyes downward, then lifted his head to gaze at the crowd, nodding slightly, solemnly. The hall was not at capacity but full enough, one would assume, to please a former president trying to correct “a false narrative”.
The book is not the tell-all that Zuma has been threatening to write for years. Instead, as described by Rebecca Davis, it is a collection of speeches Zuma made during his time in power, with commentary added by acolytes professor Sipho Seepe and media consultant Kim Heller.
It is unclear why he has still not spilled the proverbial beans. After all, all former leaders suffer the same fate of dwindling political capital, criticism and accusations, some of them nasty.
If there ever was a moment for Zuma to air the governing party’s grubby laundry, it would be now. The ANC is just weeks from its elective conference, with incumbent Ramaphosa not an overwhelming frontrunner, and Zuma rooting for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
Zuma’s legal woes are likely to increase come 2023 with the Arms Deal trial set to start. There is also the very real possibility that he will this week be ordered back to prison as his questionable medical parole decision is further scrutinised before the courts. And there may be charges from the recommendations made by the Zondo Commission.
Nevertheless, while he appeared to have speaking notes at the launch, Zuma didn’t read from them, instead addressing the crowd in isiZulu briefly and then in rambling and often muddled English interspersed with isiZulu. It made for disjointed listening, but his point was made, without him mentioning Ramaphosa’s name.
His daughter, Duduzile, sat in the front row below her father at this point, watching him with adoring eyes, videoing his talk on her phone. Other audience members included former SAA chair Dudu Myeni, one-time Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, and advocate Dali Mpofu, currently defending the former president in the Arms Deal case.
“The book was written because, in the country, as I left government — people can criticise; I mean…I have heard people criticise all around the world — but I have never heard people criticise to the extent that I have been criticised,” Zuma said.
He had ordinarily taken such criticism “simply” he said. “But when a statement was made by the head of state who followed me, who had been my deputy president, and I worked with him for the whole term, and at the end he stands up and says [that my term was nine wasted years]… which included him, really.
The book was an attempt to correct that narrative, he said.
A limited number of books were released last year, Zuma said, because waiting for an official launch meant that what had been said about his time in office, which was “incorrect”, “would have stayed in the heads of people” had such not been done timeously.
“And if somebody died before we made the launch, who was in ANC, travelling to heaven, and would meet [Oliver] Tambo at the gates [of heaven] and Tambo would say: ‘But why did you waste nine years?’”
Shortly after saying this, he launched into a story about visiting a friend in Nkandla who lived “at the foot of the mountains… [Judging by those roads] it looks like South Africa has not had independence,” he said.
He said the roads leading to the home of the friend “which serves a huge community” were a mess — muddy and dangerous in times of rain. “But what do these councillors do? Can’t they discuss this road?” he said he had asked his friend.
Zuma — once the most powerful man in South Africa — appeared to disassociate himself from this story. During his time in office, the ANC controlled almost every single municipality in the country. The party refused to hold its own councillors to any standard, instead preferring to defend those found to be involved in corruption.
Zuma’s enormous homestead — the subject of former public protector Thuli Mandonsela’s Secure in Comfort report — is in Nkandla, and while his foundation awards bursaries to students from the area, many of the roads remain graded earth. The town area itself is severely underdeveloped, as it was during his time in office.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “It’s #paybackthemoney for Nkandla time: Court rules VBS can seize Jacob Zuma’s assets”
To Zuma’s credit, during his presidency, the road that passed his home was tarred, linking his and nearby villages to the towns of eShowe and Kranskop.
However, his more ambitious plan of building a mega-town in the same area, often referred to as Zumaville, and with a price tag in excess of R1-billion, never materialised. Tens of millions of rands were spent on the planning, however, while accusations of corruption and using the project to further his family business interests were never far away.
At the time Julius Malema, who had freshly been expelled as ANC Youth League leader, accused Zuma of wanting to build a “New York City of KwaZulu-Natal” in Nkandla.
Moving on to his contribution to the electrification of the entire country and particularly rural areas during his term as president, Zuma told the audience that his colleagues tried to dissuade him, saying it would be too expensive. “Well, let it be expensive, I want to see the countryside have electricity,” Zuma said he told his detractors.
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He was wise to what was going on, intimated Zuma. He knew that those detractors wanted to “make a business” out of electricity supply. Nevertheless, he “forced” electricity in the rural areas, said Zuma, “and it was done”.
Zuma has never admitted playing any part in the Eskom crisis. On the subject of education — and making light of his own formal lack of — Zuma said: “I have a problem with education partly because I never went to school. And I always boast that no teacher in South Africa can say ‘I have seen the forehead of this man in my class’.”
Education was key to any society, he said, “for taking a country to a developed world [status]”. Education had been a priority during his presidency, he said. “Not being educated is painful, I know it.”
According to Dr Israel Govender, the owner of Chatsworth-based Kairos Media Group, which published Jacob Zuma Speaks, there would be “plenty more books” from the former president.
In his message of support at the start of the event, Govender addressed Zuma as “our blessed president… one of the greatest men in history”.
“We are trying to get him to write a children’s book,” gushed Govender. “We will get it done.” DM