View from Afar: Jacob Zuma’s legacy of destruction and inaction

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In the past several days, South Africa has witnessed the awkward and undignified death throes of a disgraced patriarch. Jacob Zuma, our newly resigned (now former) president, used his last moments in the limelight to showcase the vilest parts of his character: greed, stubbornness, arrogance, and entitlement. Like a wounded hyena, he hisses and growls while vultures circle around him. As the country watches in stupefied disgust, now is an apt moment to assess his legacy.

I think that we must treat President Jacob Zuma as the President of the Republic of South Africa. President Zuma has not been found guilty by any court of law. And when we took these decisions, we did not take [them] because President Jacob Zuma has done anything wrong.”

These were the adamant words of Secretary-General Ace Magashule at Tuesday’s ANC press conference, defiantly rejecting attempts by journalists to address the reasons for the party’s recall of Zuma from the presidency. Magashule is a long-time supporter of Zuma, and the contorted anguish on his face reflected what internal distress he must be experiencing. Magashule is in this way a perfect representation of the party he now oversees: chaos and disorder showing through a thin veneer of normalcy, the strained attempt to project unity and control when neither truly exists.

There was some truth to Zuma’s argument during his staged interview with the SABC on Wednesday. The leadership of the ANC has indeed refused to provide a justification to him or to the public for their decision to remove him from office; they have not had the courage. But this grain of truth was overshadowed by the obvious cluelessness and indifference of the man himself. Right to the end, Zuma refuses even to acknowledge the accusations against him, or to see what a burden he has become to his party and the nation. He is as callous, oblivious, narcissistic, and arrogant as ever.

Of course, everyone knows why Zuma has been recalled. His faction within the ANC is now the minority, by at least a small margin. The electoral damage that he has wreaked on the party is significant, along with the future damage that his continued reign would ensure. The new leadership knows this well, and cannot afford to alienate voters any further. Good sense has prevailed.

It is equally clear why Magashule and many in the ANC will not acknowledge in any straightforward way the true reason for their actions. For one thing, Zuma still has supporters within the party’s structures at every level, and their anger must be assuaged. For another, any criticism of Zuma would be an admission of the party’s complicity in his prolonged and catastrophic rule. Rather than drawing any further attention to the crimes and failures of the Zuma regime, the party hopes to put them out of sight and focus instead on its new leader, its old narrative – the way things ought to be.

But the legacy of Jacob Zuma cannot so easily be brushed under the carpet. He leaves in his destructive wake an economy that has stagnated, with tepid growth, more than a quarter of the population formally unemployed, over 500,000 jobs lost in the manufacturing sector, and persistent levels of poverty in rural areas. He presided over the ransacking and hollowing out of important state institutions, the undermining of the judiciary, the politicisation of the security services, and the collapse of State-owned Enterprises. His two terms brought corruption on a grand scale, and entrenched a toxic culture of tenderpreneurship, bribery and political impunity. Racial tensions are at their most fragile in two decades. Our foreign policy is in shambles, our international standing lost, and our reputation for integrity and respect for human rights shattered. For a country so young, we could little afford his disastrous tenure.

And yet, ironically, Zuma’s greatest failure was precisely that which has animated his supporters: the programme of “radical economic transformation” which he claimed to champion, but stopped short of implementing.

Zuma came to power in Polokwane at the head of a populist insurgency, promising to bring radical change that would end elite enrichment and address black poverty and disempowerment. Throughout the nine years of his presidency, his rhetoric (and that of his allies) has remained consistent. But his policies and actions have demonstrated none of this zeal for transformation and upliftment. For a president who spent so much time lamenting the slow pace of land reform, it is remarkable that he changed nothing about it despite having the power to do so. For a faction of the ANC which claimed so often to speak for the poor, it is astonishing that so much has been stolen from the country’s poorest. The economy languishes, the poor remain so, the elite continues to enrich itself, and the landless have no relief. Nine years is a long time, more than many leaders get, and enough to make wide-reaching changes in government. None has occurred under Zuma.

Zuma instead leaves us with the status quo that he inherited from his predecessor, only much worn-down and dilapidated. His greatest legacy is to have broken the momentum of post-apartheid South Africa, set back its developmental progress, and dealt several critical blows to its institutions. The most profound irony of all is that the richest South Africans have lost the least during his rule – sheltered from the worst effects of government’s failures, they have survived and even prospered. The black poor, the most vulnerable and dependent on the state, the most in need of structural change, have suffered the worst. The real legacy of Jacob Zuma is not only what he did, but what he has not done.

Nevertheless, this moment brings renewed hope. It is not too late to resuscitate the vision of a more equal, more prosperous, more peaceful country. And the events of these past weeks, while tumultuous and frustrating, have shown that there are still capable and principled leaders in the ANC and the civil service. We do not lack for talent or ingenuity. But to really signal a new start, President Ramaphosa will need to mark a definite break from the past.

Most important, he will need to learn the critical lesson from the Zuma era: that the failure to act, more than any act itself, is the real danger now. DM


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