EDITORIAL: The unbearable narcissism of Jacob Zuma
Zuma’s strategy of avoiding the issue entirely, and proclaiming victimhood instead, got him to the presidency; now he’s hoping it will keep him out of jail
Former president Jacob Zuma’s appearance at the Zondo commission into state capture this week was a masterclass in blind narcissism. Were we to believe what Zuma said under oath — and there’s no good reason to do so — we’d have to see the near-collapse of SA as primarily due to a decades-old global conspiracy targeting one man. As he told it, a shadowy group of cartoon-like villains have been set on destroying him since the early 1990s, and they almost succeeded when he was recalled as president in 2018. But their ultimate success would be his humiliation before this commission — an inquiry he instituted himself. Now, that’s some display of cunning.
This was conspiracy theory of the tinfoil-hat order, unworthy of even an airport novel. As Zuma told it, we had international agencies working covertly in cahoots to pick pliable ANC leaders, a suicide-bomber gang, a series of failed poisoning attempts and failed assassinations. You have to ask: given how awful these spies routinely were at actually completing the assassinations, how is it that the one thing they managed to do was to keep this entire conspiracy a secret?
But this, evidently, is how Zuma thinks. It’s clear now why every half-baked "intelligence report" he received, including Operation Spider Web, was treated with gravity rather than disdain.
Armchair psychologists with an interest in narcissistic personality disorders would have had a field day. There was much fodder, from Zuma’s implied threats to stop being nice to those who "provoke" him, his inflated sense of his own importance to the global espionage fraternity, his inability to see the country’s unravelling and only how he was "vilified", to his obvious smug contempt for the commission’s evidence leader Paul Pretorius when he thought he’d outmanoeuvred him. Not to mention his habit of referring to himself in the third person. "The issue of ‘Zuma must resign’ started way back, as part of this plan," he said, of himself. No mention of economic mismanagement or overt cronyism.
It’s not new, of course. Zuma’s strategy of avoiding the issue entirely, and proclaiming victimhood instead, got him to the presidency; now he’s hoping it will keep him out of jail.
Here we have a commission of inquiry aimed at unearthing the truth of SA’s dash to the precipice. It’s about the systemic failures that allowed patronage to trump public service, and allowed the public purse to be pillaged for private interests. It’s also about individual failure — those people responsible and those who enabled them.
However, the inquiry is not just about the catharsis of blame. It’s also about knowing what went wrong — and why — so we can safeguard the system from future failings of this order.
But sure: let’s make it all about Zuma and how he’s been a "victim" of this process.
If Zuma went on and on about the plot to take him down, he was much less forthcoming when it came to the events that actually matter to SA’s citizens — including the taxpayers who paid to keep a clique of his friends living in grand style.
Did Zuma tell former government communications boss Themba Maseko to meet the Guptas? He couldn’t recall. Did he order that Maseko be fired when he refused to co-operate with the Guptas? No, that was the late Collins Chabane.
Was he at the Guptas’ residence when they allegedly offered Vytjie Mentor a cabinet post? He knows nothing about that, apparently.
Instead, as Zuma was able to segue off-topic into one irrelevant far-fetched spy story after another, it was hard not to fear that the inquiry may end up as just a talk shop — large on entertainment value, small on investment return.
The one upside, however, of hearing Zuma’s farcical testimony, is that at least we know now how the capturers intend to fight back: with a mixture of half-baked conspiracies, outright smears and fables meant to reframe the debate, in which the perpetrators become the victims.