Politics: Lessons from Jacob Zuma’s ‘slow death’ experience

By Richard Mammah


In Davos this week, the new-kid-on-the-South-African-block, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was put on the spot by the international media and assembled pundits. And the emergent revelations from that encounter have since confirmed the very loud whispers that had been familiar to many of us for some time before now: the Jacob Zuma presidency is now history. And for good measure, the man at the centre of it all has already reconciled himself to that reality.

Not only was he absent from the Davos event, back at home, his attendance at public events, which he had so lavishly coveted through the years, has thinned to an almost indescribable trickle. And for added effect, the new ‘Zuma-the-hermit’ is now finding himself in the very disquieting situation where his preferred policy options – from free tertiary education to nuclear policy – are being taken out of the way even when he still answers the title of President and in all but name could yet continue to remain in office for another one and a half years!

Indeed, South Africa is passing through one of its now astoundingly ‘normal’ paroxysms of leadership transition that tends to involve the brutal praying mantis-style decapitation of the outgoing leader of the departing regime. And the concatenation of events in the recent instance makes it even more dramatic and noteworthy.

In a continent that has long seen the rise and continuation in office, almost endlessly of unrestrained marauding despots, the imminent Zuma free-fall which is playing out so rapturously before all of our eyes in the mould of a Kim Kardashian soap, and notably it’s now fairly predictable format and outlay, is one that all of the continent’s extant and aspiring leaders need to draw lessons from.

This is because while it is true that outgoing President Jacob Zuma’s current ‘slow death’ experience is not the first in South Africa’s recent history; the facts of the matter suggest that it is somewhat different in very many respects.

For example, in what appears to be the first such ‘slow death’ transition that was recorded between 1990 and 1994, the process of organising the landmark transition from white minority to black majority rule as well as the benign leadership temper of the incoming President, Nelson Mandela, helped to mitigate this ‘slow death’ dilemma for the then departing leader, Frederik Wilhem de Klerk. Indeed, rather than face humiliation, the incoming leader, the world and the nation largely contributed their own bits in helping to ensure a soft landing for de Klerk. Among other specific acts and expressions of comfort, the departing Nationalist leader, who at other times and in other climes could only have gotten a bullet for ‘high treason’ (the example of Nikolai Ceausescu of Romania comes to mind here); secured a plum joint Nobel prize along with his successor, was retained as a second deputy President in the new administration and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission further cemented his institutional protection from being held accountable for any crimes he may have committed against the state and people of South Africa.

When South Africa next passed through the leadership decapitation route, it was in the era of Thabo Mbeki. And here also, the ‘slow death’ scenario was to be somewhat mitigated. After trying without fail to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of the incumbent leader, Jacob Zuma, who he knew so well and whom he had himself so ignominiously dismissed from his former perch as Deputy President, the consequent ascendancy into office of Zuma clearly put Mbeki at his mercy. But then Mbeki had the ANC fathers led by Mandela himself to stand as a wedge against Zuma’s excessive bloodletting in addition to the fact that the Mbeki personality type did not so contumaciously include some of the rather absurd kleptocratic tendencies that have since shown themselves so evidently in the Zuma years.

Now it is the turn of the one the opposition loves to describe as the barely educated upstart,’ and the story of his own fall from grace is clearly being accentuated by several factors.

First is the litany of suits and allegations against him, some of which have already moved on to their second levels of investigation and prosecution. And from the emerging evidence from the back-room investigations and trials that are currently going on now, it is looking almost as clear as daylight that the incumbent president’s formal ouster from office and his consequently being shepherded into jail, is no longer a question of if but rather when! Sad.

Second, unlike in the Mbeki instance where the former President largely did not interfere any more, and openly so too, with the inevitability of a Zuma emergence particularly after the intervention of the ANC fathers, in the Zuma instance, he literally defied the party, humbled its leaders, broke its ranks and did everything in the books and outside the books to thwart the imminent transition to the new Ramaphosa leadership, even going as far as to ensure that the new leader would continue to have both a hamstrung ANC national executive and a slew of last minute policy traps, like land nationalization and free tertiary education that would pit him against the South African streets.

Third is the fact that also on account largely of Zuma’s governance bungling, the South African opposition today has largely come into its own and as such, even the differences between the Zuma and Ramaphosa camps cannot therefore be fully resolved as had been the case in the past, chiefly as a ‘mere family affair.’ With the opposition now in control of many critical mayoralties in the country including the notable ones of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria, it is very clear that the ongoing South African leadership tangle is clearly one that has presently taken the proverbial colouration of an ‘handshake that has not only gone beyond the elbow,’ but even the involved hand is now at risk of being amputated! It is in this mould then that several opposition political groupings as the Democratic Alliance, the Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF and the Congress of the People, COPE have all continued to vigorously push the case for a non-shoving of the Zuma shame story under the carpet.

And fourth is the fact that the Zuma desert leadership years have also very structurally alienated the core of the ANC from many of the critical stakeholder groups within the country. From the press to civil society, big business to the student communities, poll after poll has since confirmed that the ANC does indeed have a tough fight on its hands going into the 2019 polls; and with many of these interests sounding it very loud and clear that the ‘head of Zuma; is the minimum bargaining chip that the ANC must first put on the table, if it wants to talk.

And as that very memorable African proverb outlines, it is really not a funny situation to be in when you receive the news that the entire community has resolved that it is your very own distinguished head that has been chosen to bear the weight of the coconut cracking exercise.



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