Zuma: Anatomy of his downfall

Jeremy Gordin asks what the ex-President thought he was doing

Notwithstanding yesterday’s charming and funny piece by my learned friend, Andrew Donaldson, I find myself seized by the matter of the jail time given to Jacob G Zuma by Acting Chief Justice Sisi Virginia Khampepe, speaking for seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges who heard Zuma’s contempt of court matter.

My main question is this: Why has Zuma played the whole saga (Zondo commission/Concourt stuff) in the seemingly odd manner that he has?

Now, I last had a conversation with Zuma on April 6, 2009; and (if I have this correct) I last saw him in the flesh, as it were, on an evening in July 2010. This was when he hosted erstwhile Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva [1], at the presidential guesthouse; it was also (if I have this right) the occasion on which Zuma first met the Gupta brothers, introduced to him at the dinner by Essop Pahad [2].

This was 11 years ago, since when a lot of water has flown under the proverbial bridge. Could it be that the septuagenarian is playing with a somewhat impaired deck? His performance at the one Zondo commission appearance he did make (16 July 2019) was, to put it mildly, rather bizarre. Or during the last couple of years has Zuma not been receiving the best legal advice? [3]

I can’t comment knowledgeably (or even ignorantly) about his legal advice, but I don’t think Zuma is more mentally impaired than the average 79-year-old. I do, however, subscribe to the view of Greek philosopher Heraclites who said “A man’s character is his fate” – our personalities and actions shape the outcomes of our lives and therefore our destiny.

What then do I know of Zuma’s character? As noted, my knowledge is 11 years out of date, but anyway.

Anyone who thinks Zuma is not smart is him- or herself not very smart. Zuma is politically cunning and experienced, especially when it comes to the ANC. But he is in certain ways unsophisticated, and he does feel deeply entitled. Entitlement can be a problem – the annoying thing being that “the world” doesn’t always agree with what you believe you are owed, nor does it always let you get away with whatever you do in pursuit of your due.

Like most people, as they grow older, Zuma probably thinks his charm, his common touch, is more charming than it is. (With the country’s money men clamouring at the door like barbarians – see below – how many more tales of homespun Zulu wisdom could, say, Blade Nzimande or Pravin Gordhan listen to before getting a tad impatient?) Zuma rose “from nothing,” eventually trouncing someone who thought himself and was always thought to be much smarter than Zuma (Thabo Mbeki); but, if I might share some homespun Gordin wisdom, there can be a downside to this kind of “success” too.

I had an elderly relation, from the old country, whose son, standing on the shoulders, as it were, of his father’s modest country business, became a millionaire Cape Town businessperson (in the days when a million rand was a meaningful sum). However, the older man, the father (who was immensely proud of his son, by the way), was apparently heard to murmur: “My son is very clever.  His only problem is that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.”

But let’s now leave my dime-store psychological insights (though you may, if you wish, bear them in mind) and return to the question, why has Zuma handled his latest legal shenanigans, in the seemingly odd manner that he has?

In December 2015, Zuma was sailing gaily along being Zuma, when he got frustrated by the hassles faced by his good “friend,” Dudu Myeni, and by the Guptas, when it came to doing what they wanted at SAA. So, he replaced Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene with the “weekend special,” Des van Rooyen. Not smart; you bugger around with the “financial markets” and those who sail in them at your peril. Zuma quickly doubled back – appointing Pravin Gordhan. But too late, the damage had been done.

In March 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and former MP Vytjie Mentor said they’d been offered cabinet positions by the Guptas at the family’s home in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. The Guptas were over-reaching themselves.

In April 2016, in the wake of a Concourt judgment regarding the “upgrades” at Zuma’s Nkandla dacha, the Guptas resigned from their major holding company and fled South Africa for Dubai.

At the end of March 2017, Zuma – who clearly still didn’t quite grasp that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “money doesn’t talk, it swears” – announced a major cabinet reshuffle in which Gordhan and Jonas were dismissed. Whoops. As noted, it’s highly dangerous to mess with the financial folk.

Clearly Zuma was imperiling the general trough, rocking the happiness boat, and in December 2017, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (her ex-husband’s favourite) was defeated, albeit slenderly, by Cyril Ramaphosa in the election for the ANC Presidency. It was game over for Zuma and even he knew it – the hammer fell in February 2018.

But I left out one event from my “time-line” above. In November 2016 tapes recorded by then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela with Zuma and his attorney Michael Hulley were leaked to the media [4].

Madonsela and others demanded that Zuma appoint a commission of inquiry into so-called state capture. Zuma fiddled and fuddled, but finally, in January 2018, perhaps thinking it might prevent or delay his defenestration, he appointed the commission and Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was appointed chairman.

But then the vershtunkende commission indicated that it wished to call Zuma to chat about state capture. Obviously, he didn’t want to do that. He had enough troubles, as it was – in March 2018 National Prosecuting Authority director Shaun Abrahams announced, somewhat sheepishly, that he would reinstate corruption charges against Zuma.

And just before Zuma’s first appearance at the Zondo commission, referred to above (16 July 2019), the high court denied Zuma a motion to strike down those very corruption charges. Troubles don’t come in single spies, they come in battalions.

Additionally, as I wrote, Zuma’s performance at the Zondo commission – at which he presented his strange litany of how there were people ranged against him and how the country was full of impimpis – didn’t go down too well.

So, it seems clear to me that Zuma decided – with or without advice – that he needed the Zondo commission like a hole in the head. If he said anything vaguely incriminating, then maybe later the NPA might just come after him.

He could have returned to the commission and said he didn’t remember this, and didn’t remember that, and that he’d been too busy to pay attention to what the Guptas or anyone else was doing – but, as I understand it, even if you take the fifth, as it were, once questions are tabled by the evidence leader, whoever is going to write the final report is entitled to draw inferences.

I.e., Zuma could say, “Jeez, I can’t remember whether I shut down Barbara Hogan when it came to fixing Eskom,” but the commission could nonetheless find that, in the light of Hogan’s (and other) evidence, it seems that that’s exactly what Zuma did.

Additionally, I surmise, Zuma got plain indignant. “After all I’ve done for the Struggle and for the country, this is how I get thanked. I have to listen to some pisher [not a phisher] suggesting that I’d do nefarious things. Not on your nelly [or whatever the isiZulu equivalent is]!”

At first Zuma tried to do things the ol’ South African way. He had his legal team try to get Zondo to recuse himself – on the basis that the judge had a prior relationship with Zuma. (It was Zuma, by the way, who appointed Zondo to the Concourt – and also Khampepe.)

But here’s the thing. Some lawyers, like some journalists – I’d guess about 2,5% of each group – for some unknown and annoying reason decide that they’re going to take their jobs seriously. And Zondo refused to recuse himself.

What happened thereafter readers pretty much know. In December 2020 Zondo ordered Zuma to resume testifying and also served two summonses on Zuma, arranging for Zuma's required 2021 testimony to happen. After Zuma skipped his first court-ordered testimonies, the Concourt ordered Zuma to testify.

Zuma didn’t even bother to respond to the Concourt’s attempts to get him to explain why he was ignoring Zondo and the apex court, other than for a lengthy statement in which Zuma pretty much said the judges could get knotted and could do their damnedest.

I don’t think Zuma expected to get jail time but now that he has, what will he do?

He could do the Dubai duck – but I don’t think he will. He told me once he loves his cattle and there aren’t any of those in Dubai. He has also often been heard to say that because he spent 10 years on Robben Island, jail doesn’t frighten him.

Still, going to the clink aged 79 is presumably not as much fun as aged 20. But then again, Zuma will undoubtedly be well-treated, there’ll presumably be many to whom he can offer his special brand of wisdom and legal experience, and he’ll be eligible for parole after three months or so.

Bottom line: there was no way Zuma was going to give evidence at the Zondo commission – and now he’s not. What’s more, given the Covid-19 troubles that our prisons are grappling with – which means seeing attorneys etc. is severely circumscribed – Zuma is probably going to score some more postponements for his main trial.

Any chance that a smart advocate could bring an urgent interdict arguing that incarcerating Zuma, 79, and probably the host of some comorbidities, is potentially life-threatening and must therefore be changed to 15 months’ house arrest – hard by his fire-pool?

Watch this space.


[1] Lula would later spend 580 days (about 19 months) in jail for money laundering and corruption.

[2] I’m pretty certain about this because one of those at my table (no names, no jail time), who had been previously close to Zuma, perhaps still was then, squealed like a stuck pig about Pahad’s “behaviour”.

[3] We recall that in July 2018 Zuma and Michael Hulley parted company, the reasons for which one can only speculate. Perhaps Hulley, or perhaps Zuma and Hulley, realised that Hulley (who must know where some of the bodies are buried – I speak figuratively) better beat it before it was too late.

[4] Why Zuma/Hulley let the erstwhile public protector get away with so many invasive and damning (recorded) questions and answers, I don’t know. At the risk of being labelled a male chauvinist pig, all I can think is that Zuma has ever been vulnerable to an ostensibly sweet and softly spoken member of the opposite gender and Hulley too is a respectful fellow; despite themselves and the occasion, they would, methinks, have been disarmed.