Jacob Zuma: From liberation hero to political liability

 abc.net.au  2/15/2018 5:13:44 AM  5  Andrew Geoghegan

Updated February 15, 2018 16:37:51

Written off many times during his political career, it was Jacob Zuma's closest supporters who eventually turned on the president and forced him from office.

He was once seen as a liberation hero, destined as a saviour for poor South Africans.

But in the end, Jacob Zuma was a liability the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could no longer tolerate.

The question most South Africans will be asking is not why has he resigned, but why has it taken so long?

Charismatic, controversial, and allegedly corrupt.

Mr Zuma has come to represent both the hopes and failings of a democratic South Africa.

The country's second longest serving democratic leader was, in his own words, an unlikely president:

"When I joined the ANC I never thought I would be anything.

"In no way did I say, 'One day I could be the president, I think I am good material for the presidency'. Not at all."

He had no formal education and in his teens he took to political violence, becoming active in the ANC's military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe.

But he kept good company.

He spent his 20s in jail alongside Nelson Mandela, convicted of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.

On his release in 1973, Mr Zuma fled to neighbouring Mozambique where he recruited and trained young South Africans to fight in the ANC's underground movement.

His politics and his commitment to the armed struggle were influenced by time spent in Russia as a guest of the Soviets.

Mr Zuma returned to South Africa in 1990 when the ban on the ANC was lifted and Mandela was released from prison.

He drew support from the trade unions and the Communist Party by promising to radically redistribute wealth from rich white South Africans to poor blacks, while acknowledging it would be a difficult journey.

"Criminality is always the result of poverty," he said.

"Countries that experience such a fundamental change as we have, we had the apartheid regime and must now develop a multicultural democracy, must necessarily pass through a phase of high crime rates."

His populist policies saw him elected the ANC's deputy president and by 1999 he was the deputy president of the country.

But he was sacked by president Thabo Mbeki in 2005 when his personal financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found to have bribed Mr Zuma to win a $5 billion government weapons contract.

Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

However, subsequent corruption and fraud charges against Mr Zuma were dropped on a legal technicality.

When asked if he was corrupt, Mr Zuma said: "Me? Well, I don't know, I must go to a dictionary and learn what a crook is. I've never been a crook."

He was also charged with raping an HIV positive family friend, but again escaped conviction when he was acquitted.

He told the court he had showered to avoid catching HIV, an admission that would haunt him throughout his presidency.

Yet, his popularity among the poor and the grassroots of the of the ruling party remained undiminished.

Mr Zuma had his revenge when he ousted Mr Mbeki as ANC president in 2007, paving the way to become the country's president in 2009.

When asked about his role in deposing a sitting president, Mr Zuma said: "I was one of those who said we should not recall Mbeki, because we would create a bad precedent. Of course, I was defeated by the majority."

In his first term as president, Mr Zuma was applauded, somewhat ironically, for prioritising South Africa's AIDS crisis, despite his admitted failure to practice safe sex himself.

Increasingly, Mr Zuma was seen to be both politically and morally corrupt.

Many conservative South Africans couldn't accept he was a polygamist, who admitted to fathering children outside his marriage to four wives.

Even though his popularity was steadily falling, the ruling ANC backed the incumbent and Mr Zuma was re-elected for a second five-year term.

More allegations of corruption and fraud followed, which may still see him face up to 800 charges.

Among the wrongdoing, $20 million of renovations to his sprawling family estate using government funds.

Having survived numerous votes of no confidence in parliament, Mr Zuma eventually succumbed, overwhelmed by scandal after scandal.

In response to the ANC's demand for him to step down Mr Zuma made it plain he wasn't going quietly.

Defiantly he said: "Even though I disagree with the decision of the leadership of my organisation, I have always been a disciplined member of the ANC.

"No life should be lost in my name and also the ANC should never be divided in my name.

"I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect," he said.

When he assumed power, Jacob Zuma promised to improve the lives of all South Africans, black and white, rich and poor.

Nine years on, the economy has been dragged into two recessions, unemployment sits stubbornly above 25 per cent and government bonds have been downgraded to junk.

Of more concern for the African National Congress is its diminishing popularity.

It's now ceded control of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria to the opposition.

It's having trouble connecting with the country's youngest voters, for whom the ANC's history as the liberation movement has little import.

A generation after Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president, his party, which is still led by freedom fighters, is struggling for identity.

It has so far failed to transform from liberationist to reformist government.

History may well see Jacob Zuma as an unwanted distraction, who delayed if not set back the cause of the millions of South Africans still living poverty.

South Africa's painful transition to fully functioning democracy continues.

Topics: world-politics, government-and-politics, south-africa

First posted February 15, 2018 16:13:44

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