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Life after power – Jacob Zuma: Out of office, but not down and out

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 8 October 2019 11:34, updated on Tuesday, 22 October 2019 14:39

Former South African President Jacob Zuma has been underestimated before. Themba Hadebe/Pool via REUTERS

In between fending off court cases and making appearances at South Africa’s state capture inquiry, former President Jacob Zuma is carefully crafting a counter narrative about himself both on social media and in an upcoming book.

Zuma’s deep, mocking and unmistakable laughter permeates his official Instagram page, on which he regales his more than 50,000 followers with tales about his activist past and gives them a window into his colourful life after leaving office.

He is still singing and dancing, and is as jovial as ever.

There is an undercurrent of a devil-may-care attitude as he reveals his many faces to the world: doting father, adoring husband, anti-apartheid activist, shrewd politician and fallen head of state.

The Jacob G Zuma Foundation has even called on South Africans to write about the former president’s legacy as part of efforts to compile a book on his contributions to the country’s politics.

Zuma was forced to resign as president in February 2018 after he was recalled by his own party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Zuma, whose two terms of office were dogged with allegations of corruption and state capture, had been pressured to make way for his then deputy, Cyril Rampahosa.

In December 2017, Rampahosa had been elected president of the ANC ahead of Zuma’s ex-wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The doting father

These days, he divides his time between his estate in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu Natal, and Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial capital.

Zuma the affectionate father jokes and playfights with his children. He plays chess, the piano and other musical instruments with them, a smile affixed on his face.

He shows up in court alongside them when they are in trouble with the law.

He made regular appearances in the culpable homicide trial of his son, Duduzane, that was heard by the Randburg Magistrate’s Court in Gauteng. The case stemmed from a 2014 accident involving Duduzane in which a woman lost her life.

The erstwhile head of state usually arrived at the small regional court flanked by government-funded bodyguards and in a blue-light brigade convoy, albeit one that is substantially smaller than the more than 20-car motorcade he grew accustomed to as president.

  • Though out of office, it is custom in South Africa that former heads of state enjoy VIP security protection and receive a salary for life, among a long list of perks, once they leave office.
  • A spectator in court, Zuma smiled, waved, gave the thumbs up sign and cracked the odd joke with those attending proceedings.

In July, the Randburg court found Duduzane not guilty.

Zuma’s favoured son is currently based in Dubai, where he leads a charmed life, but his legal troubles back home in South Africa are far from over.

Much like his father’s.

Like father, like son

Duduzane, a twin, is one of the former president’s 23 children, and features prominently on Zuma’s Instagram page.

This could be because, of all Zuma’s children, Duduzane has garnered the most public attention. There are many reasons for this, but Duduzane’s profile received a substantial boost when his father became the ANC president at the governing party’s December 2007 elective congress in Polokwane.

The congress was a defining moment for his father’s political career.

But it was also a defining moment for South Africa. Years after Polokwane and the subsequent success at the 2012 Mangaung elective congress, Zuma’s detractors point to the 2007 conference as the moment when the state capture project took hold in earnest.

  • Zuma rose to political power as a result of a coalition staked on discontent with the Thabo Mbeki administration, which was often derided by the ANC’s alliance partners as out of touch with the needs of South Africa’s poor majority.
  • This was known as the so-called coalition of the wounded. It comprised the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and senior ANC officials who had been side-lined during Mbeki’s tenure.
  • At the time, Mbeki’s ANC had isolated Cosatu and the SACP to the periphery of South African politics, reducing them to mere observers instead of equal alliance partners. They returned the favour by not only aiding Zuma’s ascent, but by also agitating for Mbeki’s recall in 2008.

The 2007 congress was also a defining moment for Duduzane — almost immediately after his father became ANC president, Duduzane was appointed a director at the Gupta-owned Sahara Computers and other companies linked to the family.

Much of the allegations around state capture centre around the relations between Zuma’s family and the Guptas, three Indian-born brothers who lived in South Africa, and how this relationship was used to influence government appointments and procure business for the Guptas.

Friends with money

The Gupta brothers — Tony, Ajay and Atul — whom Zuma famously referred to as his ‘friends’ while addressing Parliament, are at the centre of state capture allegations in South Africa. During a 2013 question-and-answer session in the National Assembly, Zuma told the nation: “Every human being has a right to have friends.”

It was the year that the Guptas landed a private plane filled with wedding guests at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, a restricted military base, causing widespread outcry and criticism because the act constituted a breach of national security.

Originally from India, the Gupta family moved to South Africa in the early 1990s and entrenched themselves among the country’s political establishment.

The extent of their influence on state processes, including the appointment of members of the executive arm of the South African government, is under scrutiny at the state capture inquiry.

The inquiry, known as the Zondo commission, is headed by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, an officer of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa.

  • On the appointments of ministers and their deputies, the Guptas are said to have been behind the bizarre firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015.
  • The incident is referred to as 9/12 in South Africa. During the four days after Nene’s firing, the local currency went into meltdown, with the Rand losing 5 % within hours of the announcement.
  • Zuma had placed a little-known Parliament backbencher, Des van Rooyen, in charge of the nation’s finances. It is widely believed that the move was motivated by pressure to approve South Africa’s new nuclear build, which Nene had resisted as finance minister.

In response, the country’s captains of industry staged an extraordinary intervention, forcing the then-president’s hand into begrudgingly appointing Pravin Gordhan as finance minister. Gordhan had previously held the position from 2009 to 2014.

  • In October 2018, Nene confirmed, while giving testimony before the Zondo commission, that he had been fired for refusing to sign off on a nuclear deal for South Africa with Russia because it would collapse the country’s fiscus.

Tender husband

But pictures of Zuma show him to be seemingly far-removed from this political blowback. As a husband, Zuma is portrayed as attentive as he spends his days playing the piano and lazing about with his loved ones. In one photo, he is captured side-by-side with one of his wives floating in the infamous “fire pool” at his home base in Nkandla.

  • The pool in question had been listed as a security addition and as part of the upgrades to Zuma’s home, which South African taxpayers had paid $23m for.
  • When queried, the then president’s office had stated the pool was a necessary security feature as it would serve as a water source to help fight fires. It became famously named the “fire pool”.

Ever the romantic, he is set to make a 24-year-old woman his seventh wife.

They welcomed his 23th child, a son, on Zuma’s birthday on April 12, 2018. The couple is still going strong as they posted a picture on Instagram showing them as loved-up pair at Zuma’s birthday this year.

Taming of the shrewd

In one short Instagram video posted on July 14, Zuma sang “Zuma Must Fall” as he wiggled, shook and giggled.

  • Zuma Must Fall was a nationwide campaign in South Africa that began soon after Zuma controversially fired Nene.
  • The campaign was unique as it was the first time that South Africans rallied against a political figure. Previous campaigns have always focused on issues such as service delivery, free education etc.

The video was vintage Zuma. He is never one to miss an opportunity to mock his detractors while also demonstrating he is in touch with the chattering classes.

That is both a weakness and a strength.

He uses his Twitter feed to make biting political commentary, with mixed outcomes.

Three weeks ago, a South African court ruled against Zuma in a defamation case brought against him by Derek Hanekom, a former tourism minister in Zuma’s cabinet. Zuma had branded Hanekom, in a series of tweets, as “an enemy agent”, code for apartheid spy. There is no worse insult in South African politics for former anti-apartheid activists.

Zuma has to pay R500,000 ($33,000) to Hanekom, which the latter said he would donate.

Zuma has also not shied away from talking about the nuclear deal with Russia. In March, he told Business Day that he stood by the deal. “We are going to pay trillions of rand because of the problems of energy,” he told the newspaper.

  • “But if we went for nuclear, we will be spending trillions for a shorter amount of time and we’ll make more trillions. So the truth is the opposite,” he added. “The fact of the matter is nuclear could solve our problems, once and for all.”

In July, he made an appearance at the Zondo commission in Parktown, Johannesburg. There, he did more coughing than talking. He also complained about being cross-examined and being made to explain himself during the questioning process.

There is speculation that he may be required to return, although his lawyer had bemoaned the former president’s treatment at the commission.

Decline and fall

It has been more than a year since Zuma was asked to vacate the highest office in the land, however, his shadow and invisible hand loom large in ANC politics. His leaving office was a humiliating affair and was reminiscent with how Mbeki’s second term had also been cut short. Though many accuse Zuma of masterminding Mbeki’s exit, and find Zuma’s own leaving of office fitting.

In February 2018, Zuma begged for six more months in office. His party’s top six officials refused and gave him an ultimatum: leave now or risk a vote of no confidence in Parliament. The vote is the South African equivalent of an impeachment.

But while he may have lost the battle to install Dlamini-Zuma as his successor at the ANC’s elective conference held in Nasrec, Johannesburg, in 2017, he still holds sway within the party’s rank and file.

His backers include Ace Magushule, holder of the powerful position of ANC general secretary, who often sings hymns of praise to Zuma and is at odds with Ramaphosa’s government.

In June, for example, the ANC released a statement about the independence of the South African central bank that was at variance with the ANC’s adopted position and which had angered the market. Fingers pointed to the governing party’s general secretary, but he denied any malice.

Parliament, too, is packed with Zuma loyalists, who preside over powerful oversight portfolio committees.

These include:

  • Faith Muthambi, the former communications minister, who famously defied the ANC’s policy directive on digital migration.
  • Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the erstwhile energy minister entrusted by Zuma to usher in nuclear and under whose watch South Africa’s strategic oil reserves were sold at bargain basement prices.
  • Mosebenzi Zwane, dubbed a Gupta minister, is a one-time provincial official for agriculture in the Free State. During his time as minister of mineral resources, he accompanied a Gupta delegation to Switzerland, where members of the family negotiated the sale of the Glencore-owned Optimum Coal Mine to the Guptas’ Tegeta Resources.

Institutional decline began during Zuma’s term, seemingly to his advantage.

In a bid to weaken the criminal justice system, the Zuma administration made questionable appointments in key posts.

While the president has the prerogative to make the appointments of key institutional heads, including those of the national prosecutions boss, the chief justice of the Constitutional Court and the commissioner of the South African Revenue Service, some of the appointments and dismissals were controversial and successfully challenged through the courts.

  • The opposition Democratic Alliance successfully challenged in court Zuma’s hiring of Menzi Simelane as national head of prosecutions, a position with the administrative to decide which cases to prosecute.
  • In December 2011, the Supreme Court of Appeal invalidated Simelane’s appointment because of Zuma’s failure to follow proper appointment procedures.

In August 2013, Zuma hired Mxolisi Nxasana as the head of national prosecutions.

But almost two years later, Zuma terminated Nxasana’s 10-year contract and awarded him a R17.2m golden handshake. Zuma then appointed Shaun Abrahams as head of national prosecutions.

  • In 2016, legal lobby group Freedom Under Law and Corruption Watch challenged Nxasana’s firing and the golden handshake award.
  • In August 2018, the Constitutional Court found in their favour. The judgement also put an abrupt end to Abrahams’ term.

Whatever Zuma’s attempt to weaken the judiciary, Ramaphosa holds sway in the executive arm of government, the most powerful segment of the state.

It is in this arena that Ramaphosa has demonstrated precision in undoing some of the institutional decline.

  • In December 2018, Ramaphosa appointed Shamila Batohi as the new head of national prosecutions.
  • Batohi is tasked with reversing the decline precipitated during the Zuma years.

The story of Zuma is one of tragedy and triumph, shame and scandal, a spectacular rise and an equally mesmerising fall from political grace.

A political comeback by Zuma is highly unlikely, but causing discomfort might be part of his broader strategy.

The state is no longer liable to pay for his mounting legal bills for a litany of court cases. The Zondo commission has shown appetite to recall him to its stand.

Ultimately, he needs the political limelight more than it needs him.

Bottom line: This protagonist has been written off before, but history has shown that he is not one to discount or underestimate.

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