Character is best gauged under pressure. It’s the stress tests that determine whether the raw material is carbon that may be squeezed into diamond, or mud that at best will become compacted dirt.
A decade ago, at Jacob Zuma’s moment of greatest triumph, when he engineered the “recall” of former president Thabo Mbeki, he was ruthless and vengeful. Subsequently, his track record as democratic South Africa’s fourth president showed him to be cunning, racist and shamelessly corrupt. Now, the manner of his departure provides evidence of not a single trait to mitigate that bleak assessment.
Backed into a corner by his own party, Zuma’s only possible alternatives were impeachment or a resignation forced by a vote of no confidence. His first public response, mid-Wednesday, was a delusional, self-pitying ramble on national television.
He would not resign because it was all “very unfair”. He had done nothing wrong and the African National Congress had not given reasons why he should go.
There was also a veiled threat. He warned of a “crisis”, that “some people will not like this” and that if the ANC leadership were not careful, there would be “problems”. The attempts to remove him might result in “violence and division”.
But by late Wednesday evening, threatened defiance had wilted in the face of imminent humiliation. Fortuitously, the envoys shuttling between the ANC’s national executive and Zuma were the party’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, and his deputy, Jesse Duarte. Both, until just weeks ago, were Zuma’s closest allies and most vociferous supporters.
Faced with the choice of resigning or being evicted by the virtually unanimous vote of his erstwhile comrades, Zuma backed down. And, as to be expected of the man who proudly proclaimed the ANC constitution to be more important than the South African one, it was party interests not the national interest that changed his mind.
“No life should be wasted in my name. The ANC should never be divided in my name. I have therefore come to the decision to resign with immediate effect,” he said piously.
This is the second president recalled by the ANC before the end of their office. Mbeki was evicted with just months of his second term to run. Zuma has been forced out, in turn, by his successor, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, with at least a year in hand.
But though the events echo one another, the manner in which the protagonists behaved could not be more different. Mbeki, who showed no sign of resisting the Zuma faction’s policy agenda once they had taken control, was treated with pettiness and spite. In contrast, Ramaphosa has been almost fawning in the respect he has shown Zuma.
Whatever Mbeki’s failings, and they are legion, he departed the presidential stage with the dignity of a Socrates stoically downing the poisoned cup for the greater good. Zuma, in contrast, displayed all the dignity of a wretched convict being dragged to the gallows: cursing, threatening and pleading, in equal parts.
The giddy joy that Zuma’s departure has unleashed in public forums is a measure of how despised he has become. Even those shadowy groups created specifically to support him, like the Black First Land First movement, were strangely muted in their response.
Despite all these signals, like his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, Zuma is firmly in the grip of the so-called Big Man of Africa syndrome. Among its symptoms are delusions of grandeur and invincibility, as well as an indifference to accepted standards of ethics and good governance.
Both Mugabe and Zuma were turfed out asserting the enormous love and respect that they believe – despite all polling and voting evidence to the contrary – is felt for them by ordinary citizens. Both left railing bitterly against the perfidy of their “comrades” and blaming sinister Western forces of regime change.
Admittedly, both men, though no one currently seems to want to countenance it, did some good. Mugabe’s achievements were in education, while Zuma rolled out an antiretroviral campaign for a disease that Mbeki had denied existed. But both did incalculable damage to their countries and will be judged harshly by history.
There are obvious signs of the destructiveness of the Zuma years: collapsing infrastructure, bankrupt state entities, economic decline and increasing unemployment, to name but a few. The biggest damage, though, is as yet largely invisible to the eye.
Zuma gleefully sowed racial division and poisoned the moral wells of the nation. He considered himself to be above the law, a behaviour pattern widely imitated by everyone from minibus taxi drivers to the cronies that he allowed to loot state coffers.
It will take years to repair the rifts and strain out the toxins. It will take enormous leadership, across the board, from a party that at best tolerated his behaviour, at worst aided and abetted it. Whether Ramaphosa is the diamond in the dirt that everyone hopes, remains to be tested.
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