Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

After all he has done, it is difficult to believe that Jacob Zuma actually made it to the end of his second term as ANC president.

It took cunning survival skills and a brazenness that few people of this era possess.

Zuma has treated the rule of law the same way an adrenaline-fuelled daredevil approaches a wall of fire; he has used the ANC as his motocross bike to power through the flames.

Zuma's greatest achievement is that he beat the odds to survive and outsmarted his opponents to keep control of the ANC.

Many people mark the ANC's 52nd conference in Polokwane as the beginning of Zuma's ascendancy to power.

The story actually began 10 years earlier, in blistering hot Mahikeng, when Zuma took his place beside Thabo Mbeki on the stage at the ANC's 50th national conference in December 1997. Nelson Mandela had declined to stand again as president so there was a smooth handover of power to Mbeki.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela intended to compete for the position of deputy president but she was outmanoeuvred by Zuma and his supporters. He too was elected unopposed.

It was a poignant moment when Mandela walked over and put his arms around Mbeki. The hall thundered as the ANC, then in its full glory, celebrated the passing of the torch.

Zuma stood nearby clapping. While he had served as ANC national chairman before being elected deputy president, his focus had been on KwaZulu-Natal, where he had served simultaneously as provincial chairman.

So while the Mahikeng conference was Mbeki's big moment, Zuma also shifted into the fast lane to power.

Citing the heroes of the liberation movement, Madiba said in his farewell address: "It is in their name that we say to you: here are the reins of the movement - protect and guard its precious legacy; defend its unity and integrity as committed disciples of change; pursue its popular objectives like true revolutionaries who seek only to serve the nation.

"I wish to reiterate that I will remain a disciplined member of the ANC. And in my last months in government office, I will always be guided by the ANC's policies, and find mechanisms that will allow you to rap me over the knuckles for any indiscretions," Mandela said.

Twenty years later, Zuma hands over the reins of the ANC under very different circumstances and with a very different message.

In Mahikeng, he took his place on stage among an assembly of prominent liberation leaders who were elected as ANC officials and members of the national executive committee.

Through Mandela, a legion of heroes placed the ANC in their care.

Since he became president 10 years ago, Zuma has taken the ANC on a hell ride, leaving it fractured, disgraced and at war with itself. He surrendered the ANC's electoral mandate to a corrupt coterie who embarked on a sophisticated operation to loot the state and render the governing party powerless.

Unlike Mandela, Zuma refused to be held accountable by his organisation or by the constitutional mechanisms that uphold democracy.

History will remember him as the man who led the once-mighty ANC through its darkest moments and immersed himself in shame.

While the ANC was unable to "rap him on the knuckles", as Mandela had invited the party to do to himself, it is the legal system that will have the final say on Zuma and determine his fate.

There were many moments over the past 10 years when the ANC should have drawn a line in the sand, particularly when the Constitutional Court ruled that he had violated the constitution. Speaking at the ANC's gala dinner on Friday, Zuma said the ANC should be forgiven for wrongdoings as "it was all in a good spirit". He took no personal responsibility for his actions.

Over the past fortnight, the courts did what the ANC failed to do. They stripped down Zuma's powers and made him pay for wasting taxpayers' money.

The judgment by the High Court in Pretoria last week shifted his power to appoint the national director of public prosecutions to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

This week Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo ordered Zuma to pay personally for "reckless" litigation to delay a judicial commission into state capture. The court also affirmed Thuli Madonsela's instruction that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng appoint the head of the commission.

Zuma wants to camouflage his battered legacy by ensuring that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma succeeds him and keeps his network intact. Her election would serve as validation that no matter what Zuma has done, his organisation still supports him and trusts his judgment on the future leadership of the ANC.

In his speech at the 1997 conference, Mandela said: "More often than not, an epoch creates and nurtures the individuals which are associated with its twist and turns. And so a name becomes the symbol of an era."

Zuma has been the symbol of this era and his contagion courses through the party he was entrusted with. He ends his term as a fallen hero who diminished a glorious movement.