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South Africans must reject Jacob Zuma’s lies and the cult of personality

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South Africans must reject Jacob Zuma’s lies and the cult of personality!

Back in 2007, in the lead up to the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane, there were people who cautioned against the ANC’s and the Tripartite Alliance’s fanatical support of Jacob Zuma’s imminent ascendancy to the presidency of the party. This caution was based on the flawed character of the man that the alliance partners wanted to see succeed, Thabo Mbeki, and about whom many have written most revealing books (among them former ANC NEC member, Ronnie Kasrils and former Director General of the National Intelligence Agency, Vusi Mavimbela, who later served as Director General in the Presidency under Zuma).

His mobilisation campaign during the 2005-2007 period to fight his legal and political woes was anchored in narrow Zulu nationalism, deceit, and chromatophores to suit a given favourable environment – a strategy which he continues to use to this day. Whatever our reservations are, and were during that period, those who were intent on propelling Zuma to the union buildings did not bother to listen nor reason. They had been sold and believed a barrage of lies that Zuma was a man of the people and that his presidency would usher in radical improvements in the ANC-people relations – for the benefit of ordinary South Africans. Indeed, a false narrative emerged after Polokwane that the ANC rank and file had reclaimed the party from the clutches of the 1996 class project (a reference to Mbeki’s 1996 macroeconomic policy of GEAR).

Some in the Tripartite Alliance who dared to reason were hastily dealt with. Willie Madisha, who was the president of COSATU, and Mazibuko Jara, who was SACP Youth League’s Deputy General Secretary, became prominent victims of the unstoppable ‘Zuma Tsunami’. Jara at the time wrote a forceful piece titled, What colour is our flag? Red or JZ? – A critique of the SACP approach on the JZ matter in which he said in part:

“As South African communists we must be for the rule of law, equality before the law, due process and fairness. This means that the Party must publicly speak out and defend JZ’s claim of this right not because he is a person of any “stature”. In contrast, talking in terms such as “someone of JZ’s stature”, as we have, problematically implies that some are more equal than others. This approach undermines the principle of equality before the law and promotes the cult of personality by elevating leaders above the masses of ordinary people.”

Jara’s conclusion was poignant:

… serious and objective introspection must take place on the whole JZ saga: what was our aim in conducting ourselves in the manner we did over JZ? Still keeping with the strategic approach of working in the ANC and the alliance we must strategise and act now to ensure that, as far as possible, left forces can strategically and positively influence the ANC 2007 Conference in respect of policy issues, the state of the ANC and the leadership collective which emerges from this Conference. We must do the same on government policy including a review of the arms deal. This requires the Party to confront the arms deal once and for all… 
Party introspection also requires serious consideration of whether there is a case for the political defence of JZ.”

The ensuing venomous diatribe visited on Madisha and Jara by the ANC and alliance partners, which resulted in the former’s expulsion from COSATU, sent out a loud and clear message that anybody who opposed the emergence of a Messiah in the name of Jacob Zuma would be harshly dealt with.

Needless to say, at the Polokwane conference, Zuma trumped Mbeki with 2,329 votes against 1,505 and became ANC president. The following year on 20 September, the ANC NEC made an extraordinary decision to recall Mbeki. He subsequently resigned as president of the republic on 24 September. Zuma became the country’s president after the 2009 general elections.

Zuma is credited with having rolled out a massive HIV/AIDS programme following years of the so-called Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. Contextualising this change of tune is beyond the scope of this article. However, anecdotally, a new HIV/AIDS stance was one of the pillars of Zuma’s strategy, given the public mood about HIV/AIDS-related illnesses and deaths, to defenestrate Mbeki from the helm of the ANC and the seat of government – the Union Buildings.

He also implemented some of the recommendations of the 1998 Presidential Review Commission, led by Professor Vincent Maphai, which were initially rejected by then President Nelson Mandela and subsequently his successor, Mbeki. Zuma implemented what was already conceived of in respect of, for instance, the configuration of ministries including the establishment of the Ministry of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, as well as setting in motion the National Planning Commission which developed the National Development Plan (Vision 2030).

One of the often bandied lies about Zuma’s achievements in government pertains to the massive infrastructure roll-out, particularly in respect of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on our soil. This is despite the fact that FIFA had voted for South Africa to host the world’s football extravaganza as early as 2004 when Mbeki was president, which then necessitated planning henceforth. The other lie is that Zuma pioneered South Africa’s acceptance into the BRICS block of countries, when in fact, our country had been a member of the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) Dialogue Forum – a predecessor to BRICS – before Russia and China were added and before Zuma became the president of South Africa.

These lies are being deliberately sustained, ostensibly to demonstrate a non-existent fact (a figment of imagination in fact) that Zuma was innovative and that he almost single-handedly, possessed wit and ingenuity which steered the country in the right direction. His spin doctors and sympathisers make an outrageous argument that his recall in February 2018 was engineered by the White Monopoly Capital (WMC) with the aid of Cyril Ramaphosa as its chief representative in the ANC and government. They pejoratively dismiss allegations of corruption and state capture against him as part of the WMC’s strategy to tarnish his good name and permanently remove him from the country’s politics, so that the WMC can, as the axiom goes, run the country from Stellenbosch.

It is a well-established fact that, apart from the politically connected tenderpreneurs who became wealthy cash dispensers overnight, some of Zuma’s loyalists who rose from obscurity to become members of the national executive and his lackeys who were appointed to head the country’s State-Owned Enterprises, the lives of ordinary South Africans did not change for the better under Zuma’s presidency. If anything, major indicators on economic growth, employment, foreign investment, the currency, government debt, and budget deficit, etc saw a significant regression from the Mbeki years.

The country’s average growth rate between 2009 and 2017 barely exceeded 1.5% per annum (compared to Mbeki’s average growth rate of 4.1% and Mandela’s 2.2%). Unemployment grew from 22.5% in 2008 to 27.5% in 2017. Public Debt as a percentage of the GDP rose exponentially from 26.5% in 2008 to 53% by 2017. SARS collections deteriorated to a point of near collapse (the Nugent Commission report contains grave findings against the revenue collection agency during the Zuma years). Electricity prices saw a whopping 350% increase between 2008 and 2017.

Yet today, Zuma is talking about worsening socio-economic indicators under Ramaphosa. The truth is, he is guilty of precisely what he is accusing Ramaphosa of; namely, taking over a country which was better off and turning it into a state of socio-economic abyss. Just to put this into further perspective, by 1995, national debt was 5% and Mandela’s government reduced it to 1.4% by 1996. Debt service costs as a percentage of the GDP declined from 5.9% between 1999 and 2000, to just above 4% between 2002-2003 and down to around 3% by 2005-2006. Government’s budget framework also included a growing contingency reserve to deal with unforeseen circumstances, which was unfortunately gobbled and left for empty by political hyenas of the Zuma-coalition.

One of the defining characteristics of the Zuma years was the entrenchment of corruption and state capture. While the amount spent on his Inkandla homestead (about R250 million) is objectively a small fraction to have conceivably made a dent on the country’s socio-economic and development challenges, it was the deliberate weakening of governance systems, including the suffocation of the revenue authority, the hollowing out of other state institutions such as the Intelligence, the NPA, the Hawks, and the Police and the looting of SOEs, which became the hallmarks of South Africa’s grand corruption from which Zuma’s Gupta friends and family benefitted immeasurably.

In Inkandla, his massive compound of thatched rondavels stands in contradistinction to the poverty of his immediate neighbours and the entirety of KwaNxamalala – his village. This is effectively a pasquinade of a self-proclaimed man of the people (umntu wabantu) and a champion of radical economic transformation. The philosophical prism through which Zuma viewed, and continues to view, the ANC’s radical economic transformation policy as the personal acquisition of wealth and the deification of that wealth as a distinguishing exemplar of a Messiah that liberated South Africa.

Another development that exposed Zuma’s narcissistic behaviour was the violence that broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and in some parts of Gauteng in July 2021 following his incarceration. This was after he was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to reappear before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. Police minister, Bheki Cele, has it that, prior to his arrest, Zuma had told him he did not care if there was violence and bloodshed. During and in the aftermath, not even once did Zuma condemn the violence that was instigated by those who claimed to be fighting for him. Admittedly, the violence that claimed more than 300 lives and the destruction of property and infrastructure to the tune of more than R50 billion was later driven by opportunistic criminal elements and the ineptitude and lethargic response of the state’s security apparatus.

Some of Zuma’s former allies, EFF’s Julius Malema, SAFTU’s Zwelinzima Vavi, and former SACP General Secretary, Blade Nzimande, have admitted to accepting and propagating lies about Zuma until they had their own Damascus moments. These lies have, in effect, become synonymous with the man who, objectively speaking, should never have been the president of our beautiful country. Zuma’s success has always hinged on the consistent use of lies about himself (including his penchant to embellish his accomplishments during the struggle for liberation and in the immediate aftermath), the ANC, and some imagined enemies of the South African revolution.

Seventeen years later, Zuma remains a thorn on the flesh of this country. He, a raving egomaniac with a strong delusion of grandeur that he and only he can lead South Africa, would stop at nothing to get South Africans to pay for what he thinks they owe him. When he endorsed the MK Party in December 2023, he sought, and continues to seek, to reimage himself as a man of the masses whose only sin was to do good for South Africa. In so doing, he is projecting himself as way better than the party of which he has been a member for most of his adult life.

When in 2016, following the ANC’s disastrous performance in the August local government elections, the ANC NEC took ‘collective responsibility’ for electoral failure, Zuma basked under the protection of the very same ANC that he now conveniently attaches to a single individual in the name of Cyril Ramaphosa.

Back then, he was perfectly fine with embracing the concept of ‘collective leadership’ in the ANC. Now, when it suits him, he is isolating Ramaphosa from this collective and blames only him for the failures of the ANC government. Yet, in dismissing the notion of the ‘nine wasted years’ (referencing the poor state of South Africa during his years as president), Zuma argues that it is incorrect for some members of his administration to bemoan these nine years since they were also part of his government at the time.

While this characterisation is correct in the greater scheme of things, with the ANC in Gauteng having suggested in the build-up to the party’s National Conference in Mangaung in 2012 that collective leadership does not absolve individual leaders from charges of failure, Zuma has changed his tune. It was not him then but all of them. Now it is not them but Ramaphosa!

The ANC in Gauteng correctly said at the time that the president of the ANC (and it was referring specifically to Zuma) is (or perhaps should be) the ultimate propagator and promoter of ANC values and principles. This is how the province sought to assess Zuma’s first term in office as ANC president. Of course, it failed, as Zuma was re-elected for a second term in December of 2012.

What is worrying is that much like in the 2005-2007period, some in the ANC, the MK Party and broader society, are once again radically transforming Zuma’s lies and deceit into objective truth. They are even prepared to propel him one more time to Parliament and hope that he could become the country’s president again, against all the evidence that the MK Party’s electoral support base is too thin for this ambitious dream to be realised even if the Constitution did permit Zuma to take a third stab at the presidency. The question is why?

It would appear that the MK Party represents a coalescence of the interests of hitherto marginalised black tenderpreneurs within the Zuma coalition. Their objective is to gain access to the levers of power, at least in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, to pillage the state under the pretext of a redistributive economic and developmental agenda. To that extent, MK can be seen as a party for extraverted structures of capital accumulation, which will in all likelihood contribute to underdevelopment and the stultification of economic development in South Africa.

MK Party members are castigating the IEC for daring to bar Zuma from appearing on the party’s candidate list on the basis of an objection from a member of the public (a decision the Electoral Court has dismissed) and for directly petitioning the Constitutional Court to seek clarity about the Electoral Court’s decision. They seem to have forgotten about the damage that Zuma inflicted on the country’s political and governance systems for selfish ends. Wait until he does it again! There would be others in future who publicly ask for forgiveness for having deliberately believed Zuma’s lies.

It is worth repeating. Zuma’s success hinges on how much and for how long he relies on the use of lies. Gibson Njenje, another former head of the National Intelligence Agency, once recounted how Zuma, after being released from Robben Island in 1973 and having worked with Harry Gwala in the then Natal until 1975, went into exile and thrived on an own-concocted toxic combination of lies and fearmongering. According to Njenje, Zuma arrived in exile telling his comrades that because he had spent a long time with senior party leaders on Robben Island and underground, he had come to know ‘a lot’ about some ANC leaders’ dirty dealings. In the wake of  this, according to Njenje, Zuma became a feared man who could expose literally anyone in the movement.

Recently, Deputy Defence Minister Thabang Makwetla exposed one of the lies that Zuma has sustained for decades; that he once commanded ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe underground. Moreover, his claimed close relationship with Harry Gwala between 1973 and 1975 has been disputed by those who know Gwala’s misgivings about Zuma, whom he reportedly characterised as impunga yehlathi (a seasoned criminal and an evader of accountability).

During the 2005-2007 period, Zuma sold a lie, mostly among his ethnic Zulu sympathisers, that he was a victim of unnamed foreign forces who were working with some ANC leaders, including Mbeki, to kill him politically, so as to prevent him from ascending to the highest office in the land. He repeated this nonsensical mantra at his first appearance before the Zondo Commission in 2019 when he went about some rigmarole which he dubbed ‘opening remarks’.

Zuma has been telling his followers that the MK Party will get a two-thirds majority in the upcoming elections because it is popular. By so doing, he is preparing the ground so that should this not materialise, as it will definitely not materialise, he can cry foul and blame everybody – from the IEC and the judiciary to Cyril Ramaphosa and the White Monopoly Capital – for his party’s loss. It will all be obfuscation, of course.

He is also lynching the IEC for doing what it is mandated to do, by both the Constitution and other applicable laws, to manage the country’s elections. In his utopian world and that of his supporters, the IEC should have pleaded ignorance of what the country’s constitutional and legal prescripts demand of candidates vying for a parliamentary or legislative seat.

The Electoral Court may have ruled against the IEC, but clarity is required on the interpretation section 47 of the Constitution, not for Zuma’s sake but for our jurisprudence. The IEC correctly understands the importance of resolving this issue once and for all, so that it, political parties and independent candidates contesting elections in future have no doubt about constitutional and legal limitations. This is not about Zuma; it is about the law.

The Constitutional Court may as well rule to uphold the Electoral Court’s decision, which would, of course, benefit the MK Party hugely. But even if the decision does not favour the MK Party, we would be certain about the interpretation of that very important section of the constitution.

To argue that the IEC is approaching the Constitutional Court because it has a political agenda against Zuma is shallow as much as it is inflammatory. Zuma and the MK Party acted correctly when they approached the Electoral Court to challenge the IEC’s decision to bar him from contesting the upcoming elections, and they were justified in celebrating victory when the Electoral Court ruled in their favour.

There has been an argument from his supporters that a judgement of the Electoral Court cannot be appealed. Yet, to the extent that it is the constitution that sets the qualification criterion in section 47, the IEC is correct to approach the Constitutional Court for clarity. It does appear that this is a constitutional matter on which the Constitutional Court must rule. This is how our constitutional democracy and the judicial system function.

In a constitutional democracy, such as ours, the rule of law is an important foundational pillar for the success of liberty and the progressive realisation of human rights. If the MK Party believes in constitutionalism and the rule of law, as it claims to, as opposed to being anarcho-syndicalists, cultists and looters-in-waiting, it should not quibble with the IEC using constitutional and legal instruments to seek clarity on as important an issue as the eligibility or otherwise of political contestants. It is as simple as that.

South Africans owe it to themselves to defend the constitution, our democracy, and the truth. While the courts may rule in Zuma and the MK Party’s favour, which would be perfectly within the confines of the law, South Africans should resist the elevation of impetuous epithets, innuendo, slurs and lies to the level of objective reality, and the simultaneous cultivation of the cult of personality in our body politic. In a widely publicised letter to then ANC president Zuma in 2008, Mbeki decried “the highly noxious phenomenon of the ‘cult of personality’”. He wrote in part, “… I find it strange in the extreme that today cadres of our movement attach the label of a ‘cult of personality’ to me, and indeed publicly declare a determination ‘to kill’ to defend your own cause, the personal interests of ‘the personality’, Jacob Zuma!

If the MK Party cannot distance itself from lies, threats of violence and the ‘noxious phenomenon of the cult of personality’ to which Mbeki referred, then the party stands in opposition to our democracy and must be seen and treated as such.

And as Mazibuko Jara appealed to his fellow Communists in 2007, “serious and objective introspection must take place on the whole [Jacob Zuma agenda]”. South Africans must ask themselves this penetrating question: what is their aim in conducting themselves in the manner they have been over Zuma other than aiding him in his intent to revenge his February 2018 recall by the ANC NEC, embarrass his nemesis, Ramaphosa, and to once again control some levers of state power for the purposes of looting?

Zama Somhlaba is a member of the ANC in Gauteng and writes in his personal capacity.