It’s now widely accepted that Jacob Zuma’s reign was an unqualified disaster for South Africa; a decade in which the only people who benefited were his family, his friends and his civil service flunkeys. This is a plausible and nourishing analysis – but it’s some way short of complete.
Central to this “State Capture” idea is an image of Zuma himself as a cunning and ruthless individual, mono-maniacally focused on self enrichment. There’s a core of truth in that, but there’s two key elements left out. The one is his self-proclaimed African progressivism and the other is his self-admitted intellectual shortcomings.
Why it matters that Zuma was (and probably still is) a Marxist is that in terms of this way of seeing the world, the very notion of private wealth is decried as immoral and unsustainable. According to this paradigm, it’s not just rent seekers, arms dealers and tobacco merchants whose riches are ill-gotten, but everyone who plays the capitalist game successfully. Having lots of money is innately wrong, so why then should we care if one lot of individuals are advantaged at the expense of another? The Guptas, by these lights, were no less deserving of their billions than the Oppenheimers – and what distinguished them, positively, was that they flagged their willingness to share their bounty with the African masses.
My point here is not about Zuma himself, but about the complicity of others. All of us, that is, who’ve peddled the idea that a classless, race-less society is a readily achievable moral imperative. I’m not saying this was an evil position to hold; just that we bear some responsibility for how this calamity played out. Bell Pottinger didn’t make up the idea that White Minority Capital was the root cause of all South Africa’s woes; it’s been the standard assessment in progressive humanities departments for decades.
Ah but, you may say, if Zuma was a genuine leftist, and he got his hands on the coffers of the state, why then didn’t he go for nationalization, or cranked-up tax rates, or direct all the money to the poor?
Personal greed had a significant role no doubt, but it’s also likely that he knew enough about the workings of the world to appreciate that radical measures would almost certainly be disastrous. He’d probably have been happiest as a potentate ruling benignly (and hedonistically) over a Sweden-like welfare state, but he realized that simply wasn’t possible. The presence on his doorstep of a few million Zimbabwean refugees was cause enough to convince him that actually rubbishing the markets – Mugabe or Chavez style – was a deeply problematic idea. Especially with the commodity boom over and the masses unsettled.
So much for ideology. That Zuma is himself a non-intellectual is relevant in two ways. Firstly it made him highly suggestible and – rather like Donald Trump – incapable of developing a nuanced assessment of the options available. And secondly it made him reflexively sceptical of the core claims of the modern meritocracy. Zuma was preternaturally hostile to the Washington Consensus, to the kind of hierarchy that capitalism inevitably throws up – and he’d have found lots of support for this view from all manner of fawning party hacks. And famous old philosophers.
We’re living in an age where the main determinant of who gets what is intelligence, be it in the form of IQ, cognitive ability, creativity or whatever. That’s now pretty much taken for granted actually, as though this is the natural order of things. The truth is though that this is a rather modern phenomenon, and one which would have surprised just about everyone who lived before the Industrial Revolution. Everyone including the ranking thinkers of antiquity and the Renaissance.
The qualities that were most admired in earlier times, and most rewarded, were strength, bravery, attractiveness, loyalty and, perhaps, cunning. The ability to think clearly and creatively may well be the stand-out distinction of our specie, but it was only after machines made their appearance that it came to be generally venerated. Shakespeare was, arguably, the most insightful individual of all time, but he was well down the pecking order in Elizabethan England. And Socrates, who ran him close, was neither honoured in his time nor celebrated until the 17th Century. What use were their sort, really, in either fertile, clement climes or frigid, hostile ones?
If Jacob Zuma had acceded to power under the pre-industrial order, the way he behaved would have been much as expected. Looking after one’s own, first, was the hallmark of pretty much every leader, on every continent, in every earlier generation. Those though are not the rules of modernity. Instead it’s now understood that the people who really matter – the ones who are responsible for ensuring (mass) prosperity – are the enterprising businesspeople and the scientists they employ. Today, outside of Cuba, North Korea and some oil rich autocracies, the scope for state patronage has narrowed considerably, and that’s something Zuma didn’t properly appreciate. He not only packed the civil service – often with hopelessly under-qualified allies – he also targeted both state contracts and the private sector more generally. To disastrous effect.
Of course luck also had a role. If we’d been living in a boom cycle he might have got away with it. If he’d had better qualified cousins or cadres, the results might have been less shambolic. If he’d picked better, less vulgar partners than the Guptas, who knows what might have happened.
As it is, the Zuma regime is fairly described as a high order ethno-klepto-ineptocracy; one that did more harm to the country than any since Verwoerd’s. As the person at the helm, there’s a strong argument for throwing the book at him, and throwing him in jail; both in the name of justice and, more importantly, of getting the message across that misconduct will not be tolerated. All things considered though, I’m not convinced that’s the right way to go. It’s based on the assumption that he was the primary villain in this depressing drama – but that strikes me as rather improbable.
The case for leniency – in the form of a fairly gentle plea bargain – is based on two considerations that point to his having been “played” rather than being a central orchestrator himself. For one thing, he was plainly wanting in terms of an understanding of the ways of money and business. And secondly, there’s little evidence (though considerable conjecture) that he personally profited very much.
The stand-out accusation against him personally is that he wasted R260-million rand on his Nkandla homestead – but really that’s proof, mainly, of the thesis offered here. For although the fiscus lost out to that extent, Zuma himself didn’t benefit remotely as much. The whole project was a feeding trough for a bunch of builders, architects and the like – but it’s unlikely he’d get a tenth of that amount if he tried to sell the place. By the standards of venal, Third World “big men”, he was small fry. DM