President Zuma has always openly derided the intellectual class as “the clevers” because he knows that, at the end of day, they are not prepared or even able to carry out the donkey work of building and nurturing political constituencies and kissing naked, impoverished snotty-nosed kids just to win the vote. The “clevers” are probably too busy analysing the worth of their shares on the stock market. Perfunctory calls for the resignation of a sitting president would entail far more than this attitude.
November 16, 2016 was to be yet another turning point in Jacob Zuma’s presidency. He had initiated proceedings along with two of his ministers, Des van Rooyen and Mosebenzi Zwane, to have the ex-Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on state capture stopped from public disclosure. It appeared, as usual, that Zuma was manipulating state institutions to advance private interests.
And then something occurred. The night before the court proceedings, supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) went around fomenting dissent. By the following morning, their numbers had increased significantly and they spent a sizeable part of the day trashing the streets and making loud calls for Zuma’s resignation.
The protests, in spite of the violence - sometimes randomly inflicted by common hoodlums - and looting of shops appeared well planned. Instead of massing together in one central spot where they could be easily dispersed by stun grenades, rubber bullet and tear-gas, they formed multiple street units so as to disorient and confuse police troops. The strategy appeared to have worked.
By noon, Zuma had decided to withdraw proceedings halting the release of Madonsela’s report. This singular incident demonstrated one fact: Zuma understands power and knows how to wield it. He retreated at a critical moment and averted what might have been a major political catastrophe. He sensed, perhaps correctly, a dangerous fuse had be set alight and that if left to spiral out of control could have severe consequences as when Mohammed Bouaziz immolated himself in Tunsia in 2011 thereby sparking the Arab Spring in the process.
Zuma’s retreat demonstrates a certain tactical quality. You can ignore disenchanted technocrats and intellectuals such as Ben Turok, Trevor Manuel, Ahmed Kathrada and Ronnie Kasrils when they chant “Zuma must go” in their fairly isolated positions in the vast political wilderness, but you can only choose to do so at your peril when there is a clear revolt among the masses.
When Zuma was plotting his rise to power after being deposed by Thabo Mbeki as deputy president, he sang constantly in isiZulu about fetching his machine gun; as he sang, he also danced and warmed the hearts of many who were barely literate, if at all, and who toiled in vast numbers in derelict rural homesteads and desperate and inhumane urban settlements. His natural ebullience and ostensible unguardedness brought hope and light into their lives because he was able to make them feel he was a part of them.
He understood well the chimera of hope and the power of make-believe, which only the best political magicians are able to conjure. He bonded with them because they had the numbers he required to secure power. He built political bases, constituencies and power blocs within the ANC and all over South Africa because that is what real politicians do.
This isn’t about the quality of one’s ideas by which to sway the electorate but about the dog work of building and securing one’s bases. Once that is done, ideas, policies and parliamentary bills become mere commodities to be traded on the political chessboard. By themselves, they aren’t of much importance without a strong foundation and network of power. If anything at all, Zuma understands this and that is why he appears to possess an astonishing multiplicity of political lives and has been able to survive one political catastrophe after another for such a long time.
Zuma has always openly derided the intellectual class whom he dismissively calls “the clevers” because he knows that, at the end of day, they are not prepared or even able to carry out the donkey work of building and nurturing political constituencies and kissing naked, impoverished snotty-nosed kids just to win the vote. Such “clevers” are probably too busy analysing the worth of their shares on the stock market. Perfunctory calls for the resignation of a sitting president would entail far more than this attitude.
Your usual politician in the ANC or any of the major political parties is content to work his/her way through formalised structures. A politician of Zuma’s ilk knows how to play with, and play around those structures. Such politicians are more adventurous in imprinting them with their own scent and personalities. They know that without the personal imprint like a hyena marking its territory, they remain dead, impersonal formations. The secret is to activate those structures, imbue them with life and fire and then without one’s doing there would be calls such as “I am prepared to kill for Zuma!” In other words, a political party by itself lies in a state of dormancy. For it to become activated and take on a life of its own, it needs a sorcerer to invoke its latent energies and make it become a living, pulsating organism after which it then needs to connect with the wider society.
A politician who succeeds in pulling off this remarkable feat then needs to learn how to ride on a tiger literally and metaphorically and once he/she is able to accomplish this, he/she is undoubtedly homeward bound. This is the main trajectory of Zuma’s political career, one that would continue to be unpredictable as it frenetically lurches about on the back of the tiger of power.
On November 29, after hectic deliberations within NEC, the ANC through its Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe, once again proclaimed Zuma as party leader and president of the republic. Zuma had survived yet another incipient plot.
By now all doubts concerning Zuma’s political acumen - where it matters most within his party - must be laid to rest. You don’t get away with all he has without a good degree of astuteness, not to mention sheer luck.
* Sanya Osha has published prose, poetry and works of philosophy. He is also a frequent contributor to Africa Review of Books/Revue Africaine des Livres. His other work has appeared in Gadfly Online, Transition, Pambazuka News, and The Missing Slate. He works at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI), and Centre for Excellence in Scientometrics and STI Policy at Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa.
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