The relentless political onslaught against President Jacob Zuma still comes as a surprise to some, while others saw it coming a long time ago. Zuma relied on the solid loyalty and respect that the South African population bestowed upon the ANC.
He also relied strongly on the belief that patronage distribution was a sufficient tool to keep him safe from all manner of opponents, “enemies of agents”, as he prefers to call those who criticise him.
However, the weakness of Zuma’s strategy was his belief that he did not need to change his behaviour. Zuma believes people have no choice, they have to vote for the ANC and, by implication, they will always have to support him regardless of how many times he blunders.
He was guaranteed unwavering support and loyalty, so he thought.
The public statements criticising him in recent days have stunned him. The attacks have also emanated from the belly of his supporters in the National Executive Committee (NEC), from such powerful figures as Enoch Godongwana, Mathole Matshega, Jackson Mthembu and others. The most stinging attack came from more than 100 veterans and stalwarts of the ANC.
Particularly shocking was the suggestion by Gwede Mantashe that Zuma must follow his “conscience” and do the right thing.
The election of President Zuma was the most unfortunate event to befall our country. The sad thing about his elevation to the position of state president is that it was predicted that it was going to end in disaster.
Paul Trewhela, in his book, Inside Quatro, predicted that Zuma’s presidency would be “a potential threat to civil liberties”. On the other hand, Professor Barney Pityana warned the nation about the potential threat of Zuma’s leadership as far back as 2008, when he described him as a “flawed character in his moral conduct”.
He highlighted the fact that Zuma had been indicted for serious crimes that involved corruption and dishonesty.
Pityana made these comments during an annual memorial lecture to celebrate the life of anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett at Kingswood College in Grahamstown.
In that speech, Pityana told South Africans to take responsibility for the country’s failures because they had elected leaders without vision and basic competence: “We must blame nobody but ourselves for the tragedy of our education system, a collapsing healthcare system, a bloated but inefficient civil service, pervasive crime, and corruption that has become endemic.”
The first person to respond to Pityana was the outgoing ANC Youth League leader Fikile Mbalula, who used his farewell speech in Bloemfontein in 2008 to mock the respected academic, to the glee of the Polokwane victors, when he said: “Yet again, some Professor Pityana has made a clown of himself by his overzealous confusion and comical postulations about the ANC president and the ANC leadership.”
Fast forward to 2016, and listen to the same Mbalula speaking, as he sings a completely different tune now. At the funeral of respected struggle stalwart Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile, a matured and grown-up Mbalula, speaking after Sipho Pityana, told the nation that the truths spoken by the younger Pityana were all factual and what made the speech more painful to listen to was that “it was the truth”.
Months later the same Mbalula, who was in the frontline of Zuma’s attacking squad, lamented the inability of senior comrades to hold the president to account.
He was at the funeral of MP Bonisile Nesi and, to the embarrassment of senior leaders like Gugile Nkwinti, Phila Nkayi, Jackson Mthembu, Michael Xego and others, he said that he and other young leaders had been left in the lurch when these leaders dropped their heads at the moment they were expected to stand up and be counted in the Zuma-dominated NEC.
Mbalula’s sentiments are shared by many in the ANC who previously believed that criticising Zuma was a heresy.
The flawed character described by Pityana has not improved over the period. He continues to stumble from one blunder to another, with the voters ultimately taking things into their own hands by rejecting Zuma’s presidency in the local government elections of 2016.
Zuma was protected by some ANC members even though under his leadership, the organisation has been splitting left and right. The ANC membership stood full square behind him.
During that whole period, Zuma did not change his behaviour or conduct. He was always assured of the cacophony of blind loyalists who will praise and defend him. In other words, he operated with a blank cheque.
Things started to go wrong when the public was flabbergasted by his turning the entire administration into a family enterprise, to serve his family, friends and loyalists.
It is against this background that the authors of the book The Fall of the ANC, Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo, call his presidency a “transactional leadership”. They define transactional leadership as “the relations between the state and business that are not based on a shared vision about a better future, but in order to share the spoils of patronage”.
Under Zuma, they say, “there is a rise of transactional leadership on the back of growing corruption and factionalism within the ANC. The unseemly bonds between the ruling party and factions of business post-apartheid bear a striking resemblance, in our view, to the mafia state that evolved in post-communist Russia under Boris Yeltsin. Stark parallels include preference by the ruling party for business elites who are in search of tickets to prosperity”.
They quote from Willie Esterhuyse’s Endgame: “It is self-evident that transactional leadership opens the door to corruption and promotes the possibility of opportunistic compromises. It is transactional leaders that convert fragile states and uncertain democracies into criminal states.”