He began in larceny and ended in infamy
Jacob Zuma’s slow-motion end is all of a piece with his presidency
Watching the upside-down world of the presidential drama in South Africa from Down Under – nine hours ahead in Melbourne, Australia - provides some perspective.
Actually, most of the psychodrama the world is witnessing as Jacob Zuma clings on with cuticle-wrenching intensity to the windowsill at Union Buildings reminds the reader or viewer of the famous OJ Simpson car chase.
Some will recall the actual event on June 17 1994 when the infamous football star and his driver led the Los Angeles Police Division on a two-hour, 110km, slow-motion car chase across the highways and byways of Southern California.Others will more recently have watched the outstanding TV drama The People Versus OJ Simpson. And the similarity between OJ Simpson’s attempt to flee justice and Jacob Zuma is very stark. Every viewer knew how it would all end eventually, although in Simpson’s case he was acquitted by the jury in a controversial case in which he was accused of murdering his wife and her friend. But he was later convicted in Nevada for another series of offences and was finally, late last year, released on parole.Zuma’s slow-motion end is all of a piece with his presidency. It began in infamy, it continued with larceny and plunder and it will end in disgrace.
The beginning of the end was when the Constitutional Court signalled in 2016 that he had violated his oath of office. He presided over the loss of ANC electoral fortresses in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. He pillaged the Treasury to corruptly enrich his friends and cronies. He desecrated the institutions of state in order to evade justice and continue in office long after his political expiry date.
When, in a few days’ time, Cyril Ramaphosa takes the reins of office he could, in his State of the Nation speech and genuine sincerity and minor adjustment, use the opening words of Gerald Ford, another president appointed to office after his predecessor resigned in disgrace: In August 1974 Ford told his fellow Americans: “Our long national nightmare is over.”Of course Ford, a highly experienced legislator and a palpably decent human being, completely undercut his own appeal and his chances for re-election two years later when he immediately granted Richard Nixon a preemptive pardon for his crimes and misdemeanours.
While the new South African president does not posses the power to pardon anyone in advance of their conviction by a court of law, any grubby under-the-table deals struck by the ANC to allow Zuma to escape there legal consequences of his own misdemeanours will count heavily against them in the future.
Nixon, of course, left behind him not just a disgraced presidency. In a real sense, he changed the modern world order – from detente with the Soviet Union to opening diplomatic relationships with China. Other than providing South Africa with a more enlightened HIV-Aids policy, Zuma leaves nothing behind beyond disgrace and destruction. He bankrupted the Treasury, he sullied our international reputation, he metastasised corruption across the entire body politic and the roll call of disrepute goes on and on.To be perfectly fair, however, among Zuma’s more revealing remarks was his musing that the ANC, to him, was far more important than either the country or its constitution. But even here, as this week’s forced, drawn out and disagreeable departure from office shows, beyond being dishonest he is also a monumental hypocrite.
The intrepid Garth van Onselen unearthed an answer which Jacob Zuma gave in November 1996 when he was head of the ANC deployment committee. It fell to Zuma to defend the firing of Free State premier Terror Lakota (who now leads COPE.)
Zuma said then: “There is no premier who is a premier out of nowhere. They are all coming from the political party. They are answerable and accountable to the party, including the president and everybody else … no one person can be above the ANC. He can’t be … Once a premier is elected by the ANC majority in the legislature he has no right to do whatever he wants.” So, Zuma declines to apply the same diktat to himself that he demanded of other ANC heads and premiers.The final irony of Zuma’s determination to defy the country, the constitution and the party to the bitter end is that his exit from office will be cushioned by the very rule of law that he has so subverted for the past decade.
Once again an historical analogy helps. In December 1989 the last communist ruler left standing in Eastern Europe was Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Like Zuma, he occupied a bubble of delusion – propped up by sycophantic aides who hid from the dictator the people’s revulsion of him. Zuma apparently advised the ANC Top 6 that “the people still love me”.
Ceausescu thought the same until he stood on a balcony making a speech and the people started booing. The difference, of course, came in the end. On December 25 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were subject to a drumhead court marshal and taken outside the room and executed by firing squad.
One of the crimes for which Ceausescu was “convicted” was “economic sabotage”. Zuma, in addition to 700-plus charges of corruption, could certainly fill another charge sheet of equal length with his own crimes of economic sabotage against the people and the state.
But – and this is South Africa’s saving grace – he will be subjected to the process of law. Or if he is not, then you must know that his successors are, in no real sense, very different from him.