Zuma is no subtle genius

William Saunderson-Meyer says the President is simply a shameless, unscrupulous opportunist


Jacob Gedleyishlekisa Machiavelli sets the table for the Last Supper

It’s a mistake to deduce from Jacob Zuma surviving the past tumultuous dozen years without going to jail or being ousted, that he is some kind of Machiavellian genius. He is not. There is no subtle intelligence at work here.

Zuma is simply a shameless, unscrupulous opportunist. That the president has been able to get away with this for so long can be laid at the door of a craven, cowed African National Congress that has stood, wringing its hands helplessly, while its principles were betrayed.

The ease with which a leader can surround himself or herself with indentured sycophants, all ready to bend the knee, is not novel. Nor is the ability to intimidate rivals with spurious allegations of sedition distilled from home-brewed “intelligence” reports.

It does not take strategic brilliance to exploit ethnic and racial tensions. It does not take tactical wizardry to use inflated ANC membership figures to control branches and congresses and, ultimately, to secure the presidential secession. 

This week’s cabinet reshuffle by Zuma follows a familiar pattern. Like the previous 11, it serves not to improve disastrously poor ministerial oversight but to buffer his immunity from prosecution and to expedite the looting of state assets.

Incrementally but inexorably, each reshuffle has strengthened Zuma by sidelining power blocs that traditionally have been accommodated in the tripartite alliance. With the axing of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, the general-secretary of the SA Communist Party, the president has now reduced the SACP to token status.

The other important appointment is that of David Mahlobo. He, the brothel-creeping confidante of a rhino-poaching illegal immigrant, becomes Minister of Energy, after previously serving as Minister of State Security. 

At State Security Mahlobo oversaw the exposure of the agents of Western imperialism who want to overthrow the South African state. We’re talking really dangerous people, like former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, as well as former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas — all smeared, none ever charged.

On the face of it, Mahlobo’s movement to the Energy portfolio is a ministerial demotion, except that he is now in position to drive the implementation of the nuclear deal with Russia. This is the trillion-rand main course at a Last Supper of tenderpreneurial excess, before leadership elections potentially end the gluttonous feast. 

There is no evidence of Machiavellian brilliance in any of this. There is, however, some blunt-force primal intelligence at work here, of the kind that Zuma shares with United States President Donald Trump, who similarly confounds us with what he gets away with.

At the nub of it is an awareness that outrageous behaviour can take one a long way in a world where most people — even politicians — are fundamentally decent people. It is the realisation that brazen actions, when executed without any compunction as to flouting established ways of doing things, can achieve unexpected successes.

In order to operate effectively, democracy depends on tacit conventions almost as much as it does on formal legal underpinnings. There is no law that says a leader who has lost the confidence of much of his executive should resign, but this is what happens in most of the rest of the family of democracies.

Elsewhere in the democratic world, credible allegations of criminality and corruption would normally preclude elevation to high state office. Or, if the accused is already an incumbent, their sidelining at least until the reputational pall had been lifted after a thorough investigation.

These are all critical self-regulatory mechanisms that rely not on the judiciary, but on the ruling party itself, to implement them. It is the ANC’s dismal failure to do any of this, that is directly responsible for the parlous situation that SA finds itself in.

State capture by a small clique is impossible in a modern society without the acquiescence of the governing party, or without a subversive fifth column usurping power within that party. State capture is the failure not of the constitution and the law, as much as it is the failure of those who have sworn to uphold the constitution and those tasked to implement the law.

Zuma is the quisling within government, the man who traitorously removed the guardians of fiscal probity. The ANC is the party that betrayed SA by not preventing him from doing so.

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