Happy birthday, Accused No. 1!

Andrew Donaldson asks whether the ex-president's evident disgruntlement will soon find a political outlet


AMONG those who publicly wished Jacob Zuma happy birthday on Thursday was the former public protector, Thuli Madonsela. “Blessings in the year ahead,” she tweeted.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge we wondered if this was some sort of joke. If so, it was fairly cruel, Madonsela having played no small part in events that resulted in celebrations being less fizzy than in previous years.

Last year, when he turned 75, they threw a major bash for Accused Number One in Soweto and he spent the day in the warm glow of an adoring crowd and the moist and soothing platitudes of his fawning inner circle.

True, there was disquiet away from the singing, dancing and that slab of stodge covered in yellow and green icing; that very day, demonstrators were marching on the Union Buildings, demanding he stand down as president.

But, as Nomvula Mokonyane, then water and sanitation minister, reminded guests, “The very person who they are calling to step down is the same one who struggled for their freedom.” 

The ingrates. You could lead them to the big cake but would they eat? No. Alas, not. 

As for the big guy himself, well, he wasn’t concerned about the detractors; they come with the territory when one is, all told, a very tremendous person and a great leader. 

“Opposition will oppose everything because that’s their job,” Zuma said. “They will oppose, but don’t panic, it’s all normal.” 

Even former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were attacked in the same manner. The next president of the ANC, he added, would probably come under fire as well.

That, mind you, would have been the other president, the one the party was supposed to have chosen at Nasrec last December, at the electoral conference where things famously did not go as planned.

And, of course, Zuma had intended to remain on as president of the country until elections next year, following which he was looking forward to a rosy retirement of sorts and a place among the pantheon of sainted stalwarts.

“[After 2019] I will work for the party for free,” he told his guests. “I will still have the strength to vibrantly debate the party’s policies from my branch, and if there is a conference I will be a delegate.” 

And how that particular applecart has crashed into the ditch. 

This year, on his birthday, Zuma told a Durban memorial service how the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had suffered as a result of the well-financed and orchestrated smear campaign against her.

He knew of which he spoke. Had he not, he seemed to imply, been the victim of such a campaign himself? 

Two months ago, in a somewhat deranged SABC interview, he complained that he didn’t know why he was being treated so badly by his own party. “I need to be furnished with what is it that I have done‚” he said, “and unfortunately nobody has been able to tell me what is it that I’ve done.”

This was breathtakingly disingenuous. He knows exactly what he’s done. We’ve told him so. Very loudly, and on many, many occasions. 

And if that wasn’t enough, if he was somehow deaf, then he should know because that was why, six days before his birthday, he wound up in the Durban High Court on fraud, racketeering and corruption charges relating to the arms deal.

But, even then the mock indignation continued. “It is surprising,” he said after that appearance, “that the people who want to treat me like I'm guilty are the people I trust. In English, they say one is innocent until proven otherwise.”

That they do. They also say a lot of other things. 

But sometimes they just shake their heads in disbelief that he enjoyed a hero’s welcome at the Winnie memorial service. Clearly, he’s still a popular figure in KwaZulu-Natal, which is a different country altogether.

Such support bodes well, however, for the desperate “comeback” that a reportedly angered and embittered Zuma is said to be planning. 

Commentators have pointed to his appearances at recent ANC executive committee and election planning meetings, as well as a rushed confab with King Goodwill Zwelethini, the feudal overlord of rural KZN, and suggested these are attempts to insinuate himself deeper within the party and thus muster support for a plan to unseat his replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa, through some sort of mini palace revolution.

In the unlikely event of such, well, it would be a godsend for opposition parties, who do seem a bit lost without Zuma. The Democratic Alliance, in particular, miss him so badly that they’ve resorted to scapegoating Patricia de Lille instead. But that is another story.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.