Time for Zuma to read his obituary

Andrew Donaldson reflects on our ex-President's sick note and his "medical condition"


POLITICIANS’ obituaries tend to be unsparing when it comes to the shabbier episodes of their lives. Perhaps it is for the better that they’re not around to read them. Many draw their last breath comforted by the delusion that their time among us has been for the greater good and to be bluntly reminded in their final moments that this is often not the case seems cruel and unnecessary.

However, as the classicists here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) point out, the list of those who have read of their own passing in the fish wraps continues to grow. The tradition of publishing premature obituaries, they say, dates all the way back to imperial Rome.


Back in 21CE, the poet Clutorius Priscus composed a panegyric upon learning that Drusus Julius Caesar, the son of the emperor Tiberius, had fallen ill. Priscus sadly elected to rehearse his eulogy before a private audience of noblewomen — and was shortly thereafter arrested, tried and executed for tastelessly anticipating the death of the emperor’s heir. So much, then, for the discretion of noblewomen.

Drusus, you may recall, featured as Castor in the Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius. He was poisoned in 23CE, and his death paved the way for his brother Caligula’s rise to power and the tyranny that followed.

More recently, the Iraqi general and politician Ali Hassan al-Majid read of his own demise in a 2003 air strike on Basra. He was greatly flattered — and why not? “Chemical Ali” was Saddam Hussein’s first cousin and what Iraqi newspaper would be so careless as to publish anything other than officially-sanctioned propaganda? Less obsequious notices appeared after Ali was hanged for war crimes in 2010.

Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican political activist and Pan-Africanist, was another who read of his own death. He had been living in London when he suffered a paralysing stroke in 1940. One of his many rivals, the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore, then spread the rumour that Garvey had died. One obituary, published some months later in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, described him as “broke, alone and unpopular” and this reportedly angered Garvey to such an extent that he suffered a second stroke and died, this time for good.

Such mishaps remind us that, while they may choose their final resting places, and they often do, taking care to opt for surroundings that are free of damp and mould, the high and mighty have no control over their entries in the history books.  

In this respect, I wonder if it would be in the national interest, insensitive as it may seem, if those who are working on Jacob Zuma’s death notices would perhaps reveal their first drafts and works-in-progress while he is still with us? 

Doing so would surely temper and gradually assuage the anger and betrayal that many South Africans would experience were they suddenly to be confronted in their grief and mourning with the unthinkable suggestion that Msholozi’s time was not always spent on the straight and narrow.

I have experience of this. Some years back I was commissioned to write the obituaries of prominent politicians which were filed away and then published online the day they died. Winnie Mandela’s supporters were particularly incensed at what I wrote, and there was some concern among apoplectic talk show callers that I might be a racist. 

Many felt it too soon after her passing to be reminded of the dark stuff and the call by EFF commander-in-chjef Julius Malema that every city, airport and mountain range in the country be renamed after the Mother of the Nation was perhaps more in keeping with the national mood. It was a lonely, troubling period but I was able to find succour in the Vatican’s resolute silence on the subject of her canonisation.

We need to act fast, though, if Accused Number One is to be given an advance peek at his obits. From what I gather he may not be with us for that much longer and, rather than tackle them himself, perhaps the more wordy notices could be read out to him by some ANC loyalist lest these become dreary dragged-out ordeals like his parliamentary addresses.

There has been some bafflement at the contents of the sick note handed to Judge Dhaya Pillay on Tuesday to explain his non-appearance at a sitting of his KwaZulu-Natal High Court fraud and corruption trial.

For a start, the note was legible. This immediately raised suspicions. As a rule, doctors have notoriously sloppy handwriting and no-one but the odd fellow medical practitioner can decipher what they’re on about when they put pen to paper. Yet here, in plain print, was the “layman’s diagnosis” of the problem: “Medical condition.”

Pillay felt this too vague for the court to accept and duly issued a stayed warrant for Zuma’s arrest. But there may be valid reasons for this all-encompassing diagnosis. It could be that the Thief-in-Chief has not one, but many health problems, too many perhaps for his physician to list in the official form used by military hospital professionals. 

It could even be that Dr Zakes Kagiso Motene was too busy to list these ailments and had presumed that his signature would be enough to convince the court that his patient’s “medical condition” was a panoply of illnesses severe enough to allow him to sit this one out for the next four months.

As it is, a News 24 investigation has revealed that Motene, a military doctor who has been “assigned to Union Buildings work” at a “presidential” level, is in great demand among his many patients. 

In 2015 he accompanied deputy president David Mabuza, then the Mpumalanga premier, on a Gupta-chartered flight to Russia after Mabuza was allegedly poisoned. Mabuza later told Parliament that he was too ill to remember the details of this episode. This, as we’re all too aware, is a common “medical condition” among senior ANC members where an association with the proprietors of the Saxonwold shebeen is concerned and the good doctor may have his hands full, dashing from one amnesic politician to the next.

Another reason for the vagueness of Motene’s sick note could be to preserve the former president’s dignity. Many commentators are convinced Zuma is going quite mad and point to the photograph he tweeted on Wednesday as a possible symptom of this. It shows him in combative mode, seated on a plastic garden chair next to his trusty quad bike and aiming a hunting rifle at some unseen target at Nkandla. 

To some, the symbolism is clear: the beleaguered Msholozi is gearing up for a last-ditch showdown, a quixotic face-off with the advancing Clevers and all their colonial nonsense. 

It’s all very Rorke’s Drift, but without the happy ending. Seeing the Great Blesser in such an addled state has come as a great shock to his supporters. But there have been touching displays of loyalty. 

Already the Ekhuruleni mayor Mzwandile Masina has declared on social media that he is “ready to go to jail” on behalf of his leader “since he is sick and currently receiving medical attention in Cuba and there is no one to blame. History has no blank pages, and indeed does have capacity to repeat itself.”

In November last year, following the arrest of former state security minister Bongani Bongo for allegedly disrupting a 2017 parliamentary inquiry into state capture, Masina tweeted: “You can arrest us all, but our ideas are superior and represent [the] aspiration of [the] poor majority. Until we commit to a united the organisation, we will continue embarrassing each other whilst poverty, inequality [and] unemployment finishes our people.” 

Quite what Masina means by such things is anyone’s guess. But his outsplurts (“outbursts” seems too considered a term) suggest a visit from the friendly guys in white coats may be overdue where he is concerned. It is only a matter of time before the MK veterans’ chief joke Carl Niehaus bursts out of the undergrowth to say something even more stupid. 

The family, of course, suffer the most at such times. Cigarette smuggler Edward Zuma’s pain is palpable and we can understand his anger and resentment at the court’s shabby treatment of his father.

In a prepared statement, young Edward said the warrant against his father was not necessary as he had no intention of evading the law. Previous accounts of Msholozi’s encounters with the courts suggest this to be not quite the case. But Edward’s garbled views here may have been due to his careening emotional state. The warrant, he said, was “just done to spite the nature and character” of his father. 

“It was a decision taken out of hatred for the man, it’s being vindictive, vicious and very much abuse of the judiciary for personal reasons,” he added. “This they do forgetting that the old wounds have not healed and we are gradually getting tired of them abusing the system. Our patience is running out as we can see what is happening. However, we don’t want to be tested as people.”

Elsewhere, it is hoped that Cyril Ramaphosa can find time to read and learn something from the obituaries of the former Kenyan despot, Daniel arap Moi, who died on Tuesday, aged 95. 

Moi was a ruthless tyrant who managed to cling to cling on to power for 24 years because his support for the West during the Cold War era lent Kenya a veneer of stability denied to many other post-independence African countries. For all this, he still basket-cased and bankrupted his country. 

And, speaking of veneers, the paternalistic Moi was outwardly urbane and dignified; he professed to be a devout Christian who did not smoke or drink — always an ominous sign — and who campaigned vehemently against hippies and miniskirts. The palaeo-anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey once said of him, “When you sit down and talk to him, he doesn’t come across as venal, scheming or dangerous. He comes across as congenial, compassionate — a benevolent leader.”

In 1997, international donor institutions froze their aid to Kenya because of widespread corruption. Two years later, in a desperate bid to appease donors, Moi made Leakey his cabinet secretary and charged him with rooting out waste and corruption in the country’s bloated civil service. Leakey promptly sacked 25 000 civil servants — thus securing welcome loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Once the money rolled in, however, Leakey was sacked and his reforms blocked in the courts. Kenya remains junked as a result.

The lesson here being that Squirrel is going to have to prune the state-owned entities when the time comes to go begging to the IMF. He should get his hand in now, starting with Eskom.