Jacob Zuma. Picture: Haldon Krog
In October 2008, a recently deposed Thabo Mbeki wrote a lengthy letter to Jacob Zuma, in which he began by cynically apologising for imposing “an additional burden on the then new ANC president by sending you this long letter”.
The letter dealt with, among other things, the ANC’s announcement – including Zuma’s – that Mbeki would campaign for the party ahead of the 2009 general election. Mbeki noted that, not only had he not been consulted about this, he also found it strange that the same people who were “so disenchanted” with him that they had kicked him out of the Union Buildings that September, could, “within a fortnight, consider me such a dependable cadre as could be relied upon to promote the political fortunes of the very same movement, the ANC, which I had betrayed in such a grave and grievous manner.”
But the main purpose of the letter was to dispel the accusations about the personality cult that had allegedly evolved around him during his presidency and to warn Zuma about the same phenomenon developing around the man from Nkandla.
Reminding his comrade of decades that the ANC’s mission was about the “upliftment and empowerment of the masses”, Mbeki told Zuma: “This revolution has absolutely nothing to do with the personal fortunes of those who might, by virtue of historical accident, be its leaders at any particular moment.” The ANC had always repudiated this North Korea-like “noxious phenomenon” of the “cult of personality”, of the “cult of the individual”, he said.
Listing a long line of ANC heroes and heroines, Mbeki said none of them had “ever sought adulation in any manner that would turn them into cult figures”.
Mbeki was too late. That horse had long bolted.
In the two years leading up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference in December 2007, the Msholozi personality had firmly taken root. It took the form of personal websites dedicated to him, apparel bearing his image and the 100% Zuma slogan, songs and odes in praise of him, the demonisation of those believed to be his enemies and the adoption of his favourite songs as anthems.
The Polokwane conference cemented the cult of personality. It was less about the issues facing the ANC as a governing party and more about dealing with Zuma’s nemesis and installing the corruption-tainted man in power.
The year 2008 was one of consolidation. Fully cognisant of the fact that some of those in top leadership who had supported him had done so out of hatred for Mbeki, Zuma behaved as all beneficiaries of personality cults do. He took on the narcissistic and paranoid traits associated with this phenomenon.
Fuelled by the belief that some of his right-hand people were banking on him not being able to run for president in 2009, because of his legal woes, he set about putting them in their place. He unleashed his Tonton Macoutes in the form of youth leaders and military veterans to send not-so-polite warnings to anyone who was harbouring any thoughts of disturbing his rise to highest office.
By hook or by crook – mostly by crook – Zuma made it to the Union Buildings in May 2009. After taking the oath “to obey, observe, uphold and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the republic” he set about remaking the country and the ANC in his own, corrupt image. He began by destroying the institutions that would stand in the way of his corruption by holding him accountable.
The Scorpions were dismantled and other enforcement agencies were weakened with the appointment of weak and pliable individuals. The ANC’s parliamentary caucus, which had been increasing in assertiveness in the latter years of Mbeki’s term, took on the qualities of a North Korean military choir.
Within the ANC, Zuma was making sure he was unassailable. Incomprehensible reshuffles were used to ice those he suspected of disloyalty. Provincial and regional leadership structures were manipulated and packed with loyalists with very little experience or mrabulo (political and ideological maturity).
Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal, became the most enthusiastic implementer of the Mvuselelo campaign that aimed to get party membership up one million by the time of the ANC’s centenary. It swallowed up Inkatha Freedom Party warlords and impis who had no interest in the ANC’s mission.
Julius Malema’s rebellious ANC Youth League was tamed and neutralised with the use of the likes of Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Derek Hanekom, the very people Zuma’s supporters would later regard as agents of imperialism and white monopoly capital.
When the ANC gathered in Mangaung in December 2012, Zuma – who had promised to only serve one term and then hand over to the next generation – had done enough to secure himself a second term with a comfortable majority. The ANC’s 86-member national executive committee (NEC) that emerged from that conference was the most namby-pamby in the party’s 100-year history. It was packed with loyalists who had risen through the ranks during Zuma’s five years of consolidating power. The smaller and more powerful national working committee, which is elected by the NEC, was his playground and served to protect him from any challenge.
The leagues became a key cog in his power play. On his watch, the women’s league, youth league and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association became his personal armies. Those who wanted to use them for the purposes they were meant to serve were cleared out. In Zuma’s second term in office, these organisations served only to protect him from internal and external dissent.
When history looks back at Zuma, we will mostly get a derisory account of a greedy, dirty man who used his time in office to turn the state into a feeding trough for his family, friends and acolytes. We will get to understand a man who knew power and how to use it for his own ends.
If Mbeki was adept at understanding the commodity of political power at a sophisticated level, Zuma understood it in its rawest form. Zuma knew that to control the people and allow him to screw them, it was vital that he first get them to love you. His charisma and affable personality made it easy to achieve this. His natural empathy and accessibility, which saw him attend funerals and weddings in distant villages and dorpies, made him a hit with ordinary people.
Zuma’s other great strength was that he did not mind looking stupid. And so he sang and danced at will. Whereas other politicians use this as an election gimmick, Zuma did it all the time and genuinely seemed to enjoy it. In Parliament and on public platforms he laughed and giggled as if he had inhaled a potent hallucinogenic. The more stupid he looked, the more it seemed to endear him to the people.
Zuma cynically cultivated the myth of the great, listening leader. The queues at his personal and official homes are legendary, as are those at hotel rooms in cities he visited on official business. (By the way, we are talking about the queues of people coming to present their problems, not anything else.) He would listen to one hard-luck story after the next until the wee hours of the morning. (What he did after the guests had left, and with whom, we do not know.)
What we do know is that these listening sessions mostly amounted to naught and just helped feed the myth of the listening man. As the old saying goes: You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
Zuma’s bag of tricks started running out a few years ago, as many inside and outside the ANC realised they were being used to prop up a criminal infrastructure headed by him. As skeleton after skeleton tumbled out of his closet, the public stopped buying his victim play and his man-of-the-people myth.
Like all his fellow travellers who survive on the fuel of personality cult and political manipulation, the more he came under siege the more vicious he became. As his power base in the party shrunk, he resorted to rougher tactics. The political private armies started to behave more like real private armies. In the state there was a sense that he had now adopted an “azilime ziyetsheni” stance, a scorched earth policy that would see him destroy everything alongside himself.
Zuma leaves behind a severely damaged ANC that will never recover from his ruinous leadership. Corruption has become the norm in party structures and in government entities that are controlled by its deployees. As secretary-general Gwede Mantashe pointed out recently, the ANC brand is now associated with corruption in the eyes of many South Africans who have always loved and trusted the former liberation movement.
The Congress of SA Trade Unions, a federation that was built with the blood and sweat of workers, is a rattling skorokoro because some of its leaders bought into the Zuma cult of personality instead of sticking to principle and serving the working class. The SA Communist Party eroded much of its power and influence in the service of Jacob Zuma. Its leadership finally woke to its folly, but by that point the Zuma tapeworm had done a lot of damage to its intestines. It follows then that the tripartite alliance is in disrepair and can never be patched together and return to full functionality.
Meanwhile, those Zuma shared power with are running scared. They are desperate to ensure that the outcome of this weekend’s conference leaves them able to wield the same power he wielded, and continue to plunder as he did.
This is, however, an impossibility, as power has shifted considerably in the past two years. Society flexed its muscles and pushed back against the malcontents. There is anger at his destruction of the economy and its moral fibre. The religious sector, business, labour, the intelligentsia and broader civil society are at the main table. The public has become vocal about the direction of the republic. Whoever takes control of the ANC this week will have to contend with this power shift.
So yes, Zuma knew raw power. He knew how to use it and abuse it. He knew how to use power to retain and grow his power. But his excesses helped society reclaim power from the centre. For that we have him to thank. And bugger all else.