The departure of President Jacob Zuma from the corridors of power is imminent. With his early exit, history again executes one of those neat, ironical loops.
The man who humiliated former President Thabo Mbeki by insisting that he should not be allowed to eke out the final months of his term, is in turn humiliated. His own party will have ejected him from the saddle a full year ahead of his scheduled departure.
The wily manipulator who for almost a decade managed to obfuscate, postpone and sidestep serious criminal charges, will have been brought down. Not by the law enforcement institutions that he had on puppet strings, but by the betrayal of his own inner circle.
This is often the fate politicians who become despised. Julius Caesar, Nicolae Ceausescu, Robert Mugabe, and now Jacob Zuma, all found that constitutional protocols become irrelevant when your comrades turn against you.
Mugabe defied the world and his own people for decades. He presided with impunity over genocide and starvation. But his ouster came swiftly and inevitably when he tried to place his wife in charge of the feeding trough, ahead of the lieutenants who had been long awaiting their turn.
Zuma subverted the constitution with the mute complicity of the African National Congress. He abetted state capture and corruption. Then, in his most audacious move, in order to keep the extraction processes rolling and the prosecutorial processes stayed, he tried to ensure that his former wife would succeed him.
He failed in his mission when Cyril Ramaphosa beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma by the narrowest of margins. But with the all-powerful national executive committee of the ANC still tilted in his favour, Zuma must have felt confident that at least he had a year to fashion some kind of post-presidential immunity.
However, once power starts shifting, it shifts fast. It’s the “rats desert a sinking ship” phenomenon.
It took mere days for some of Zuma’s most vocal supporters, like the self-described “Mr FearFokkol” Fikile Mbalula, to start lauding the supposed genius and statesmanship of Ramaphosa. They all knew that the good ship Zuma was sinking and none intended going down with it.
Zuma, the arch manipulator, has been out-manoeuvred. Reportedly, he keeps plaintively telling the emissaries sent to solicit his resignation that he has never been found guilty of anything and that the people love him.
It’s delusion of epic proportions, grandiosity on a Shakespearean scale. In fact, it is a reminder that whatever the Bard’s dubious usefulness in a failing education system where most kids matriculate barely able to read and write, he remains relevant for understanding a political world.
Mbeki often quoted Shakespeare. Presciently, his favourite play was Coriolanus, in which the eponymous, aristocratic Roman leader is thwarted and deposed by populist rabble-rousers. Enter Zuma, stage left.
Although Zuma has similarities to the rotund, self-important, boastful and cowardly Falstaff — a comic character who appears in a number of Shakespeare’s plays — it is likely that a bitter Mbeki would view him rather as the traitorous Brutus, in Julius Caesar.
Or maybe as Macbeth. Macbeth, after all, is about a man whose ambition causes him to murder the leader who pulled him out of obscurity into a position of trust.
One scene perfectly encapsulates the present moment in our politics. Faced with her husband’s increasingly distraught behaviour after he sees the ghost of the murdered Banquo, Lady Macbeth addresses her dinner guests, entreating them to leave.
But in the context of presidential recalcitrance, Shakespeare’s words could as appropriately be addressed to Zuma, on behalf of almost the entire South African nation:
“He grows worse and worse. Question enrages him.
At once, goodnight. Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.”
With Mbeki and Zuma, we have sequentially had a philosopher-king and a clown as leaders. Whether Ramaphosa can step up to be the hero that we are all so emotionally invested in him being, remains to be seen.
But if there is any lesson from literature, especially Shakespeare, it is that kings and presidents are invariably flawed. We shouldn’t allow our justified antipathy towards Zuma to make us foolishly euphoric about what his successor will be able to achieve.
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