Jacob Zuma: The controversial cat with uncountable lives

Jacob Zuma: The controversial cat with uncountable lives
September 10 21:00 2017

By Abdulrahman Abdulraheem 

Political commentators from across the globe must now be tired of calling him a cat with nine lives. Having recently survived his eighth no-confidence vote in the Parliament, he is now in his ninth life and he doesn’t look like someone who is ready to go down soon even with the countless pending cases against him.

In the course of his over 50 years of public life, he has seen it all and done it all. In the last few years, he must be the most talked-about public figure in the whole of the continent while his presidency must be the most scandal-ridden in the entire history of governance worldwide.

In the last half a century of his eventful life, he has been jailed and exiled for his anti-apartheid campaign, faced criminal trial for fraud, faced impeachment proceedings for sundry breaches, prosecuted for arms deal, faced trial for rape, apologized for using public funds to renovate his country home, confessed to having extra-marital affairs, mocked for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive family friend and taking a bath to avoid being infected, ridiculed for having too many wives, mistresses and children – both legitimate and illegitimate – and divorced and widowed at different times in recent years.  The public and private life of this enigmatic septuagenarian has been a huge joke at best and at worst a joke taken too far.

Born 12 April 1942, in Nkandla, Natal Province (now part of the province of KwaZulu-Natal) in South Africa to a policeman who died when he was young, and a domestic worker as a mother, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma received no formal education. Constantly being moved around Natal Province and the suburbs of Durban in the area of Umkhumbane, Zuma’s growing up was rough and tough and this must have prepared him for the battles ahead. His rag-to-riches tale – from the incarceration of the apartheid days to the power struggle in the African National Congress which saw him unseating his long-term foe, Thabo Mbeki, in 2009, and to all the impeachment proceedings and storm he has weathered as President – one thing has been constant, his resilience and never-say-die attitude. He seems to be at his best when he has his back to the wall, that is why he keeps staging sensational comebacks each time it looks like he is down and out.

While many of the afore-mentioned incidents  happened in the course of his infamous Presidency, he has managed to survive criticisms, media attacks and has over the years developed the thick skin and shock absorber  to be able to withstand and survive  all the machinations of his adversaries and held on to office.

He joined the ANC at the age of 17, becoming an active member of its military wing, ‘Umkhonto We Sizwe’, in 1962. He was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government and imprisoned for 10 years on the notorious Robben Island, alongside the country’s superhero, Nelson Mandela. Popularly known as “JZ”, Zuma was said to have helped keep up morale among the incarcerated ANC members with songs and impromptu theatre – it was that comical nature which endeared him to ordinary South Africans before his elevation to the presidency.

After being freed from prison, Zuma left South Africa, living first in Mozambique, then Zambia, as he rose through the ANC ranks to the executive committee. He became one of the first leaders to return home in 1990 – when the ban on the ANC was removed – to take part in negotiations with the white-minority government.

While trying to oust Mbeki, he enjoyed strong support among trade unionists and the communist party – an ANC ally – as they believed he would redistribute South Africa’s wealth in favour of the poor. They accused Mbeki of being too business-friendly and had presided over “jobless growth”. Recent reality has however shown that Zuma has not changed South Africa’s economic policy and many of his erstwhile allies, such as firebrand youth leader, Julius Malema, have since deserted him, accusing him of not doing enough to help the poor and of running a government which is full of mind-blowing scandals. The economic performance indicators have been bad, earning the frustration and angry reaction of youths. There are almost daily protests by people demanding better basic services such as housing, schools, water and electricity.

The latest in the series of the Zuma drama was remarkable as it was historic. This time the no-confidence vote in the Parliament was in secret ballot, which means his own party members could comfortably pitch tent with the opposition and send him out of office. The media was therefore awash with predictions that give Zuma no chance. But in his trademark manner, he won the vote and bounced back remarkably. And now he is back on his feet again.

Amid series of corruption allegations against Zuma, Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, had on August 7 announced that she would permit a motion of no confidence in the government to proceed via secret ballot. It was the eighth motion to be brought against Zuma in his presidency and the first to be held via secret ballot. After the vote was held the next day, the motion was defeated 198-177, with 25 abstentions.  In order for the no-confidence motion to pass, at least 50 out of the ANC’s 249 MPs would have had to vote against the president but only 26 did and 9 abstained. That means a total of 35 ANC members did not vote for a retention of the status quo.

Speaking afterwards in a rally to celebrate yet another victory against his rivals, a relieved Zuma thanked his supporters and “those in parliament who had voted correctly.” He said: “They believe they could use technicalities in parliament to take over the majority from the ANC. It is impossible: they cannot. We represent the majority.”

Observers have accused the ANC leadership of indulging Zuma and failing to address the charges leveled against the President in a statement following the vote, which it called a “soft coup.”  Rather than rebuke Zuma for his transgressions, the party accused the opposition of attempting “to collapse government, deter service delivery and sow seeds of chaos in society to ultimately grab power.”

Political observers have said judging by the number of ANC MPs who voted with the opposition, it may be a short-lived uhuru for Zuma as internal squabbles continue to tear the party apart. The ruling party has an elective conference in December where Zuma’s successor as party leader is to be elected. He has however anointed his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him as party leader and by implication as president of South Africa in 2019. She has recently been made a Member of Parliament by the ruling party and may follow it up with a cabinet appointment which means she is close to that point where she will be called upon to succeed her ex-husband.

Some pundits have said Zuma may not complete the remaining two years of his second term. But we have heard these threats before and we have written his political obituary before only for the 75-year-old relentless fighter to come out of a near disaster like a rising phoenix from the ashes.

He has had a rich history of controversies and scandals in recent years. Since succeeding Mbeki in 2009, he has, in one of his many scandals, confessed and apologized for using taxpayers’ money for upgrades on his private home. He had to refund the money after a court ruling and nationwide outrage in 2016.  His questionable relationship with the wealthy but notorious Gupta family, who are often accused of committing influence-peddling in government circles, has also drawn the anger of many South Africans. Early in 2017, a Public Prosecutor said he should appoint judge-led inquiry into allegations he profiteered from relationship with the family. Both he and the Guptas have denied all the allegations. Zuma’s credibility rating hit an all-time low in March, 2017 when he fired the popular finance minister,  Pravin Gordhan, in controversial circumstances.

In 2005, he was charged with over multi-billion dollar 1999 arms deal. The charges were however dropped shortly before he became president in 2009. The matter resurfaced in 2016 when the court ordered that he should be charged with 786 counts of corruption over the deal.  The issue is presently on appeal.

In 2005 also, he was charged with raping a 31-year-old, HIV-positive family friend (the daughter of one his late anti-apartheid comrades). He was acquitted in 2006 after the court agreed with him that the intercourse was consensual as the prosecution counsel agreed that his client was too shocked to resist a man she saw as her father. Asked if he used condom, Zuma shocked the world by saying no and that he showered afterwards to prevent infection.

ANC supporters heckled and booed him in front of foreign dignitaries – including US President Barack Obama – at a memorial in Johannesburg following the death of Mandela, in December 2013.

Zuma is also a master of making some fantastically ridiculous claims. He recently blamed witches and wizards for the election his party, the ANC lost to the Democratic Alliance in the Western Cape.

While he has defied the too many scandals in his public life to reach this level using his charisma, resilience and strength in adversity, his private life has not been less dramatic.

The 75-year-old is a proud polygamist – following a Zulu tradition – and currently has four wives, though has been married six times in total, twice since becoming President. He is a prolific philanderer who has confessed to fathering a love child with the daughter of another family friend (not the HIV victim who sued him for rape). He has 21 children in total.

One of his wives, Mozambican Kate Mantsho, took her own life in 2000, while his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was the chairperson of the African Union commission, who he has been said to have endorsed to succeed him as ANC leader in December and subsequently president of the country.

His four present wives include Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo (married in 1973),Nompumelelo Ntuli (2008), Thobeka Madiba (2010) and Gloria Bongi Ngema (2012).

Zuma’s adversaries may be having some hope that the continuous pressure he faces will one day force him out of office before his 2019 exit date after which he would be called by the authorities to account for some of his past misdeeds but he is set to go a step ahead of them by refusing to quit no matter the pressure and also positioning his former wife as successor to guarantee his post-2019 safety.

Like a BBC pundit observed recently, it is unwise to write off the man whose Zulu name, “Gedleyihlekisa”, means “one who smiles while grinding his enemies.”