What's Zuma up to?

Jeremy Gordin writes on the ex-President's bizarre performance before the Zondo commission

On Monday (July 15), I listened to pretty much all former President Jacob G Zuma’s so-called testimony before the Zondo State Capture Commission, so-called because the first day was mostly given over to Zuma’s opening statement, not to testimony per se.

On Tuesday (July 16), during commission time, I had other tasks which entailed driving to Pretoria, so I caught some of Zuma’s testimony on news bulletins. I also listened to the hour or so devoted to Zuma and the commission on Radio 702’s Eusebius McKaiser show – during which I thought McKaiser handled Zuma’s opening statement quite sensitively, viz., non-dogmatically, which surprised me (for one). Then I later caught up with snippets of the actual testimony on eNCA.

In 2008, my Zuma: A Biography (2008) was published; and, if my memory serves me, I last had an actual conversation with Zuma in April 2009, a month or so before he was elected president for the first time, and I was last in the same room as he in July 2010 when he formally hosted Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Pretoria.

After that, as far as the Presidency was concerned, I apparently became persona non grata of sorts. But the same happened to a few others who had known him “well” prior to his election; besides, my new decreased “status” might have had more to do with certain “advisers” around him at the Presidency rather than him.

Bottom line, though: 10 years’ ago, I did know him quite well, insofar as one can “know” Zuma – for he is an odd mixture: quite opaque, while at the same being a case of “what you see is what you get”. Having known him somewhat, then, I offer these few thoughts and observations, for what they are worth.

What surprised me (initially) and seemed also to surprise callers to the McKaiser show – and even McKaiser himself – was the mouth-opening bizarreness of Zuma’s opening statement. He was at the Commission into State Capture yet went on a weird ramble in which he said he was the target of 30-year-old conspiracy put in place by various “enemies of the people” which included, and apparently include, senior ANC comrades. What, people wondered, did this “conspiracy narrative” have to do with state capture?

The first thing to note is that Zuma’s “narrative” indeed had nothing whatsoever to do with “state capture,” as it might be understood by Judge Raymond Zondo, evidence leader Paul Pretorius, various 702 callers, me or you.

But to expect Zuma to deal with “state capture,” as generally understood, is naïve, if not silly. And to expect him to “remember” anything incriminating is even sillier. The next three days – if they go the full course – is going to be a long litany of “I don’t remembers”.

Zuma has doubtless been told umpteen times what the definition of “state capture” is. But to his way of thinking this is nonsense and simply part of the plot to “get him”. His view is that some friendly, positive fellows came along (the Guptas) who expressed an interest in doing business that would help South Africa – and help him (Jacob) and Duduzane, his son, and Zuma is above all a family man – so Zuma introduced them around. What’s the crime in that, Zuma would ask – and has a few times in the last few days? “Did I auction Table Mountain?”

What about the dropping of names of alleged “spies”? It’s long been known (among those who “know” Zuma) that he has always had a list of turncoats – and it’s long been common cause that he’s kept this list or knowledge to himself and not, as far as one knows, used it – until now. When I once asked him about someone who was “known” to be a “spy” (Peter Mokaba), he said something along the following lines to me, “Look, I know who’s who. But what’s the point of bringing this stuff up now? We all have to work with each other.”

So why now drop the names of Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Siphiwe Nyanda, and “Comrade Fear” (aka Cyril Raymond aka Ralph Mgcina)? Strange – but maybe Zuma wasn’t putting it on when he said he’d been unutterably provoked. It seems he is, everything else aside, bitterly angry.

But does Zuma himself “believe” all this “stuff”? Well, yes and no. He’s a shrewd autodidact and – so far – his way of doing things has worked for him. So, at the same time as venting and dropping these names, Zuma in his opening statement followed a path he has been pursuing from the get-go.  

This involves claiming he has been and is the victim of an ongoing conspiracy and now he has introduced a red herring – these manifold plots and spies – which suggests that, unless the herring is pursued and investigated, the whole process is unfair. But the existence of plots can never be proven nor can plots be refuted.

So, what will Zuma supporters and Zuma say in the end? “See, the Zondo commission never even tried to get all the exculpatory facts” – this business is therefore discredited. Have a nice day.