Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump have a vision. And they see the world with the same stark simplicity.
Behind all their noisy machinations lie two uncomplicated aims: to bring home the pork for themselves and their families, and to dodge prosecution.
Political power is a means to these ends: neither man has much interest in the general welfare or government policy. They adopt whatever political postures suit the moment, and to advance their interests are happy to wreak havoc, often on key institutions of state.
Both, in their way, are fearless, with an instinctive grasp of how to trigger their followers, and both have exceptional street-level cunning.
Finally forced from centre stage, they shout from the wings. One remains the Republican Party’s “900-pound gorilla” and, if he chooses, its candidate for the next election; the other, who has stalled the corruption case against him for 18 years, is the hero of the ANC’s “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) faction.
Their disciples identify with them as outsiders, fellow victims struggling against the secret wiles of an alien, all-powerful establishment.
For Trump, it is the East Coast liberal elite and the civil service “deep state” that conspire against him. For Zuma, whose rhetoric has become increasingly racialised and tinged by the mouthings of Economic Freedom Fighters as his options have narrowed, the hobgoblin is white money and its control of the state, including the judiciary.
Trump’s supporters often claim he is “not a politician”. When Zuma jives on stage with his bodyguards or dons animal skins, he transitions from the wabenzi to umuntu wabantu.
His peasant/proletarian aura lay at the heart of his appeal to the unions and ANC rank and file during his war with Thabo Mbeki, whose suave metropolitan imagery – Armani suits, Dunhill pipes – fuelled his undoing.
Trump, too, has a “Joe Sixpack” vibe, enhanced by his brilliant use of Twitter to frame himself as an unvarnished truth-teller and real American.
This extends even to his diet. The Times remarked that “on Trump Force One, the 24-carat-plated aircraft with a master bedroom and concert-level sound system, there were four major food groups: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke”.
In South Africa and the US, for historical reasons, the righteous outsider and warrior against the machine are powerful archetypes that can be tapped into to justify lawlessness.
It is the mystique of the bandiet with God on his side – Umkhonto weSizwe and Jesse James – that makes it possible to defy the apex court or incite an assault on Congress.
A key distinction between the two men is that Zuma considers himself a lifelong loyalist and servant of the ANC, while Trump has no strong party affiliations, having registered as a Republican only in 1987 and turned his coat several times.
A moderate on most issues before 2016, he has moved cynically rightwards to cement his core backing. He appears to see his party as a business opportunity and now, as a chance to punish members who “betrayed” him over the election, the Capitol riot and his impeachment.
In contrast, Zuma undeniably suffered for the ANC, spending 10 years on Robben Island and 15 years in exile, working underground in perilous settings such as Swaziland. With 44 years’ service, he is the doyen of its national executive committee.
But in the end this makes little difference. The reality is that he has inflicted terrible collateral damage on the movement he claims to love, not just among South Africans, but in the eyes of the world.
He appears not to see this. Despite the Gupta Leaks and the Zondo Commission, he has not apologised or admitted fault for anything that happened under his presidency.
His constant self-pitying refrain is that he did nothing wrong – and what is truly alarming is that he clearly believes it.
He may feel that as a former exile, he is owed. But with both ex-presidents, temperament is a crucial factor. Their victimology, inability to take criticism or say sorry, indifference to the consequences of their actions, amorality and fickle changes of direction, casual nixing of employees, demands for unconditional loyalty – all are symptoms of what one might call “narcissistic leadership disorder”.
The Trump administration was a permanently revolving door – his executive office went through a 92% turnover, higher than under the previous five presidents. Zuma reshuffled his Cabinet 12 times in nine years.
Barefaced lies and gaslighting are also hallmarks of the narcissist, who does not feel bound by behavioural norms. For Trump, lying was more than a vice – it was a way of reshaping reality for his fan base. The Washington Post calculated that while president he told more than 30,000 whoppers.
Zuma’s porkies on Nkandla, collected by ANC MP Vytjie Mentor, include: “My family built my Nkandla homestead”; “I took a bond to build Nkandla”; “I did not ask for the Nkandla renovations”; “I am not responsible for Nkandla”…
And on the Gupta family: “I did not authorise the Guptas to land … at Waterkloof”; “All officials … involved in the Waterkloof plane affair will be dealt with through disciplinary and legal processes” (one was appointed ambassador); “I know nothing about the Guptas’ ministerial appointments”…
The Jacob Zuma Foundation – presumably the former president himself – recently claimed that Zondo asked the Constitutional Court to create a new law by imposing a two-year jail term on Zuma, when the Commissions Act provides for only six months. This was likened to the apartheid-era legislation extending PAC leader Robert Sobukwe’s imprisonment.
In fact, as legal academic Pierre de Vos points out, Zondo’s application had nothing to do with the Commissions Act – it revolved around Zuma’s defiance of the Constitutional Court.
More frightening than the graft allegations at the commission has been serial evidence that vital state organs – from the Revenue Service and Treasury to the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority – were eviscerated to pander to bizarre personal whims, line pockets and keep the law at bay.
Consider the hair-raising testimony about the perversion of the State Security Agency. Propelled by terror of imaginary plots, Zuma allegedly resurrected an apartheid-style shadow state complete with a “Special Operations Unit” answerable only to him; covert operations in the media, universities and labour movement; and the infiltration of the judiciary to head off criminal cases.
His complaint that the commission is an apartheid-era instrument should be seen in this context – as should the crooked canard of Carl Niehaus, Little Boy Lost in big soldier’s trousers, linking journalists to PW Botha’s long-dead Stratcom.
Poisoning conspiracies loom large in RET fantasies. The commission heard that Zuma installed a personal toxicology unit – essentially a medieval food-taster – at the cost of millions, which found nothing but flat cold drink in his fridge.
In 2018 another RET luminary, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, claimed his close ally and fellow corruption suspect, Sandile Msibi, was poisoned. Nothing more has been heard of this fairy tale.
Trump’s attacks on state institutions when it suits his private purposes are many and manifest.
His incessant claims that he won the election by a landslide undercut the polling process and the judges who dismissed his 50-odd challenges to the results. In November 2020 he stacked the Pentagon with far-right yes men, amid concerns that he might declare “limited martial law” to rerun the elections.
The wails of conspiracy are underpinned by genuine paranoia, but also serve as appeals to what poet WH Auden called “the sensual man-in-the-street”. Trump and Zuma both understand the potent popular appeal of victimhood.
It was a lesson indelibly imprinted on the latter by the ANC’s 2005 national general council. Sacked by Mbeki as South Africa’s deputy president, Zuma voluntarily stood down as the party’s deputy leader to clear his name of corruption – but was reinstated after a sympathetic backlash from delegates.
Never again would he be so humble and self-sacrificing.
For both men, office was God’s armour against the legal process. Trump’s clinging to power was partly driven by the lure of continued presidential immunity from tax and other charges. For Zuma, avoiding an orange uniform has become an idée fixe, his life’s work.
Now that they have lost state power, their tactics are the same: to appeal over the heads of party leaders to their deluded and potentially riotous followers.
Particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, its largest region, the ANC is paralysed by the implied threat to party unity and public order. Moderate Republicans are silenced by the fear of physical violence and being “primaried” – voted out in a primary election.
On economic policy, one might think that the “socialist” Zuma and capitalist robber-baron Trump are polar opposites. But labels should not mislead.
President Zuma had years in which to expand the state sector, but did nothing. His New Growth Path ran into the same hail of brickbats from Cosatu as Mbeki’s Gear policy 15 years earlier.
Indeed, in Parliament in 2010 he dismissed Malema’s calls for nationalisation of the mines as “debate, not government policy”.
Ideological conviction implies a vision for society – the vital interests of both ex-presidents lie much nearer home.
Zuma once stated that corruption is a Western idea, implying that the leveraging of state power for the private benefit of the leader, his clients and family is an African cultural norm. The Guptas were careful to cut in his relatives.
President Trump channelled millions of taxpayers’ dollars to his developments across the globe, while hiring his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner as “senior advisers”. They were allegedly unpaid, but Ivanka landed close to 30 trademarks while a White House staffer.
More broadly, one cannot see the RET faction – supplemented after the Nkandla Tea Ceremony by Julius the Shapeshifter – as credible champions of the poor.
Some face charges or have done time. Several are accused of pimping to a criminal syndicate the state they punt as South Africa’s economic salvation. “State Capture” cost South Africa R17-billion, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has estimated.
Niehaus’s RET manifesto, unveiled last week, is classic populism: sanctimonious finger-wagging and sixth-form economics as a panacea for dauntingly complex problems.
“Plastieksoldaat” may have stars in his eyes, but his comrades have dollar signs in theirs. And little “get out of jail free” cards… DM/MC