After the Bell: The enduring similarities between presidents Zuma and Trump
The self-aggrandisement, the misogyny, and the narcissism all play amazingly well with their supporters and the hatred of their detractors just makes the fans more ardent.
It was, of course, a comedian who noticed how much of a classic, archetypal third-world politician Donald Trump is. In the early days of his stint on the US comedy programme The Daily Show, Trevor Noah played side-by-side clips of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin saying: “I have the money,” with Trump saying: “I have a tremendous amount of money.” Then there was former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe saying: “My people have great praise for me”, and Trump saying: “People love me, everybody loves me.” And so on.
It was a great skit because Noah was committing a classic comedian’s trick: telling the truth in the form of a joke which illuminates that truth. Everybody, or most people, could instantly see the connection.
Noah later in his run took the comparison further, likening Trump to former president Jacob Zuma. And once again, the characterisation was revealing. Trump, a charismatic, anti-establishment president was similar to Zuma. Americans, like South Africans, decided to “mix things up a bit” and elect these leaders. They are like brothers from another mother, Noah said.
And once again, a series of television clips — one announcing that Zuma was being charged with dozens of criminal offences (likewise Trump) and another revealing Zuma’s involvement in a sex scandal (likewise, Trump). Their supporters both come from rural areas. They are both considered “Teflon politicians” because all the heinous things they do seem to make them more, not less, popular among their utterly devoted followers. The self-aggrandisement, the misogyny, and the narcissism all play amazingly well with their supporters and the hatred of their detractors just makes the fans more ardent.
In one further respect, as became apparent recently, the fate of Zuma and Trump are linked: they have both been indicted, the first presidents in both countries to face criminal charges. And of course, the similarities don’t stop there. Both Trump and Zuma have claimed the charges are politically motivated and protested their innocence.
But among all these similarities, it’s easy to miss two major differences. We don’t know exactly how it will unfold legally in the US, but we can probably be more or less sure that it won’t take 15 years for him to not appear in court.
Zuma was first charged with corruption in the wake of the conviction of Schabir Shaik in 2005. The charges were then struck off the roll, but reinstated in 2007, declared unlawful in 2008, but reinstated on appeal in 2009. They were then withdrawn after Zuma was elected, but the charges were again reinstated in 2018 after his political downfall. Zuma did actually plead in 2021 — not guilty of course — but the trial has yet to begin. There are still related hearings, transparently brought as part of the “Stalingrad strategy”, to delay the prosecution until he and/or the witnesses and/or the prosecutors move on to another, more heavenly, realm.
Through this all, the SA judicial system has shown itself to be open to political influence, prone to delays, indecisive, contradictory, confused, and generally rather inept. For me, it all reinforces once again the extraordinary value of the Constitutional Court, grafted as it was on top of the existing legal system. On the occasions, which don’t happen too often, that the junior courts do make a mess, SA’s highest court has been there to add some sense, justice and logic to proceedings. The only problem is that it takes years for cases to be heard, which is obviously what Zuma is banking on.
Compare and contrast the US judicial system. The first difference is that Trump’s indictment was not a decision of the New York District attorney off his own bat. The decision was made by a grand jury, something SA does not have. A grand jury is not “grand” in the sense of being superior, but grand in the sense of being larger. In New York state it consists of 23 people and their job is just to decide whether there are charges for the accused to face; 12 must do so.
Trump’s supporters claim the charges are political in the sense that the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, is a Democrat. But the case is being instituted by the grand jury. Well, says Trump’s supporters, it’s relatively easy to get an indictment; in the slang of US lawyers, you can indict a ham sandwich. But the utility of the grand jury is precisely that it takes the immediate decision on whether to charge largely out of the political arena. Wish we had that.
There is a second big difference. It’s interesting that for all his flaws and failings, Trump’s effect on the US economic system overall was slight. The growth rate during Trump’s term, excluding the first year of the Covid-19 calamity, was a GDP growth of 1.8%. That is actually more than during the Obama years, admittedly a longer period, of 1.6%, but less than George HW Bush (2.25%) or Bill Clinton (3.88%).
There is no question in my mind that Zuma’s ineptitude and the lack of business confidence it engendered were big contributors to SA’s lost economic decade. Average growth during the Zuma period was the same as Trump’s record of 1.8% real GDP growth per year on average — another amazing coincidence. But unemployment increased and the rand plummeted.
The difference, of course, is that the US economy is so large that when it grows by 1.8%, it adds roughly the same as half the value of the entire African continent in absolute terms. Growth in a developing economy is normally much higher than in developed economies, and during the Zuma years, SA’s growth was lower than in developed and developing countries on average.
And this is partly by design. The US Constitution is built with checks and balances in mind; the SA Constitution is designed on the basis that the leadership would be dedicated, honest and competent. On second thought, we should probably have gone with checks and balances. DM/BM