EDITORIAL: The too-heavy price SA paid for Zuma
The Zuma years stripped away the romantic notion that the ANC is still a ‘struggle party’ with leaders fired up by noble ideals
Back in July 2008, a full nine months before he was sworn in as president of SA, Jacob Zuma put his cards on the table in an interview with Independent Newspapers. "I would prefer to leave after one term ... if it was me deciding, if the ANC had made me president of the country, [I would prefer one term]," he said.
It was the sort of freewheeling discussion that burnished Zuma’s reputation as an accessible leader, in contrast to the icy and aloof Thabo Mbeki who, unbeknown to him at the time, was in the last weeks of his presidency.
At the time, Zuma spoke of how it was the ANC leadership, not the president, who should call the shots. "Once you allow that tendency [of centralising power], you are in danger that the people will not be able to defend their democracy [or] defend their power. I’ve been warning we should be wary of this, it is a dangerous thing," he said.
Well, yes. What a difference a decade makes.
The irony is that this week Zuma could not be torn away from his office — even with a supposedly "unanimous" resolution by the entire leadership of his party that his tenure should already be a grim footnote in the history books.
When ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule visited Zuma and implored him to accept the party’s resolution, he refused. With the sort of remarkable cognitive dissonance that has marked his tenure, Zuma even had the chutzpah to insist that, despite his refusal, he remained a loyal and disciplined cadre of the party.
It was a startling act of defiance from a man who, a decade earlier, had claimed he’d never wanted a second term in the first place.
It is also exceedingly futile. By the time you read this, SA could well be effectively under the leadership of its fifth democratically elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Or not.
Zuma’s defiance confirms what everybody (other than the more credulous members of his own party) have known about him for the best part of a decade: it has always been him first, and the party and country a distant second and third.
This was evident right from the start, from his first smallanyana schlenter in 2000, which landed his financial adviser Schabir Shaik in jail, through to his more audacious heists — the R246m Nkandla rip off being the flagship case. Given that trajectory, you can see why Zuma wanted another six months to finalise the nuclear deal (something he knows Ramaphosa is itching to torpedo).
Perhaps in the beginning some in the party believed that, at some stage, Zuma would be satisfied with his haul. But just like his initial pledge to leave after one term, suddenly the initial goal was too small, too unambitious. The Zuma beast, created by Julius Malema, Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi, had grown too big to be curbed.
And yet, despite all these harbingers, there were many in the ANC who were alarmed this week that Zuma had rebuffed the plea to resign. It was like a parent, waking up to discover that after years of them turning a blind eye, their spoilt teenager has ravaged the booze cabinet and taken the family BMW on a joyride to a house of ill-repute.
One of the few tangible benefits of the Zuma decade is that it propelled our politics into a more mature, less naive phase. It stripped away the romantic notion that the ANC is still a "struggle party" with leaders fired up by noble ideals.
Zuma’s legacy is that he made us realise that our laws, policies and party conventions are hopelessly inadequate for a leader such as him, and that they need to be overhauled for a new era of grown-up politics. But it’s been a heavy price to pay.