The fall and rise of the House of Zuma

William Saunderson-Meyer on the waning of the power of JZ, and the waxing of NDZ's


The long, slow deflation of South Africa’s very own Michelin man continues. Jacob Zuma is subsiding into a pitiful caricature of his former virile self.

This week, barely noticed among our childlike, excited anticipation as to whether Uncle Cyril would allow us to buy fags and KFC finger-lickin’ chicken with our Level 4 pocket money, the House of Zuma took another hit. The former president abandoned the stonewalling Stalingrad strategy that has kept him out of the accused’s dock and safe from jail.

The last-throw legal bid that was intended permanently to halt his prosecution on corruption charges has been officially dropped. Zuma’s foundation announced that the Constitutional Court had allowed him to withdraw his appeal against the Supreme Court’s dismissal of his application for a permanent stay of prosecution.

The change in strategy follows protracted disagreement and in-fighting among the top men of his legal team. Lead attorney Daniel Mantsha — once labelled by a judge as dishonest and deceitful, as well being disbarred for four years following claims of embezzlement and unprofessional behaviour — was replaced by an ethically more credible celebrity lawyer.

Daily Maverick’s Stephen Grootes speculates that the decision to drop the ConCourt appeal may revolve around a new tactic of using accusations of racism and judicial bias to create a “spectacle” of Zuma as the victim of a “deep state” and “White Monopoly Capital”. He notes the emergence of yet another Zuma support organisation, the “RET Champion” group, which says JZ is being “persecuted for his unapologetic anti-white supremacy and pro-black leadership style”.

Whatever the strategy, the delays are over. Zuma will soon have that exculpatory “day in court” that for 15 years he has been claiming to want so much. But he will enter the final act of the drama as a shadow of the powerful force he once was. 

Sure, the presidential security squad and the blue-light convoys are still there. He still enjoys the courtesy of being addressed using the presidential honorific. 

Much of the real power, however, has gone. Cadre loyalties have faded and the party parasites possibly have found more profitable politicians to attach themselves to. 

It’s no longer so easy to conjure a crowd outside the court — a mob promising to die for him, to kill for him — to drive home that this is a Big Man of Africa they are dealing with, not someone to be trifled with.

Unfortunately for Zuma, had the ConCourt hearing proceeded the Big Man wouldn’t even have been able to get his expansive butt to Johannesburg in the luxury to which he had become accustomed. 

The air force squadron of helicopter taxis that shuttled family and friends between rural Nkandla and Durban is gone. Inkwazi, the presidential Boeing, is no longer available.

And with South African Airways now perpetually parked, waiting for a take-off clearance that’s never going to come, JZ can’t even avail himself, his five wives and 23 children, of free travel on the national airliner. That excessively generous lifetime perk for all existing and former parliamentarians is moot for now.

So there is Jacob, stuck out in the sticks in his elaborate Nkandla Pleasure Dome, where the chic has, by all accounts, become somewhat shabby. As he is finding, it takes a lot of expensive upkeep to keep palatial splendour in top nick, especially with a horde of boisterous children and grandchildren.

Of course, the state will pick up the bills, but when you no longer have career-critical power over the bureaucrats of the new administration, expect some petty revenge. Fences, both literal and metaphorical, don’t get mended in a hurry.

Maybe worse for him is the public indifference. The caravan has moved on. No one any longer much cares whether that kidney-shaped “fire pool” once demanded by security regulations is now afloat with colourful plastic toys and ringed by sun loungers. 

Money is tight. There’s no longer a cash stash provided by generous benefactors. Last year the liquidators of VBS Mutual Bank filed for a court order to compel Zuma to pay the arrears on the R7.3m loan he had obtained to repay the state for the unauthorised upgrades to Nkandla.

In parallel with the Zuma mojo subsiding like a badly knotted balloon leaking air, so too has his once shiny visage crumbled. In photographs, he looks grey and unwell, making entirely believable the speculation around a serious mystery illness that he trusts only doctors in Cuba and Russia to treat.

In 2015, one of Zuma’s wives was driven from Nkandla after being accused by Zuma and the then-state security minister of having poisoned him. Five years later, and after a prolonged investigation by the Hawks, the prosecuting authority eventually declined to proceed with charges, saying that there was no evidence of poisoning.

It immediately brought to my mind the Churchillian exchange between Winston and the acidic Lady Nancy Astor. She reputedly said, “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” To which Churchill shot back, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Fortunately for his long-divorced former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, none of this matters. In fact, the woman whom the Radical Economic Transformation faction in the African National Congress had wanted to inherit ex-husband Jacob’s presidential mantle, is going from strength to strength.

Not only, judging by her beaming visage, does she radiate good health but she appears to be growing in power and influence in party circles. It must be galling to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who narrowly defeated her in that leadership tussle two years ago.

Last week, Ramaphosa said that the lockdown ban on cigarette sales would be lifted. This week Dlamini-Zuma, a scarily fanatical warrior in the war against the demon tobacco, simply overruled him. The ban stays.

The House of Zuma may still prevail in SA politics. Just a different part of it.

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