Understanding Jacob Zuma is not the same as understanding history.

If we believe that Polokwane was essentially the manifestation of Jacob Zuma’s destiny we are going to struggle to understand the present and be shocked – even more than we would otherwise have been – by the future.

It is not only the volume of Zwelinzima Vavi’s bombast that should have alerted us to the fact of Zuma’s relative lack of presidential consequence – and nor is it Gwede Mantashe’s haughty absolutism or even the impunity with which Manuel declaimed against left and right at WEF last week.

The ridiculous frenzy of biography, hagiography and vitriol that has accompanied Zuma’s rise to power is fed by a general misconception of how history works – and a particular misconception of how it works in this case. Post hoc fallacies abound in political analysis, journalism and Western historiography, but this invention of Jacob Zuma as the beloved leader finally achieving his long-denied destiny is, to put it plainly, rubbish.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was never destined to be president – in the way that Nelson Mandela, and even Thabo Mbeki, were. Yes, he was appointed deputy president of the ANC at Mafikeng in 1997 but this was more about keeping Winnie Mandela out – in fact votes and nominations for him had to be manipulated and levered out of the ANC in each province, including in Kwazulu/Natal. His lack of formal education and his tainted relationship with Shabir Shaik were both already common knowledge within the ANC and his subservient relationship to Mbeki made it inconceivable that he would ever become president of the republic.

But it was precisely Jacob Zuma’s lack of agency that allowed Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and others in the ANC leadership to use him as a bulwark against the ‘dangerous’ – i.e. financial market unfriendly – populism of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. No one thought he would be a serious contender for even higher office, and therefore he was a safe choice – not unlike choosing Kgalema Motlanthe to head off Baleka Mbete (who would have been a shoe-in for the Presidency later) and keep the post open for powerful players not yet ready to show their hands. We can guess how that strategy is going to play.

Having been used and abused by Shabir Shaik and then used, abused and discarded by Mbeki, Jacob Zuma was both a godsend and easy pickings for the alliance of groups who have ridden him to power in the ANC and the country.
Those groups and individuals are now strutting their stuff and Jacob Zuma continues to dance and sing for whoever will listen.

None of this makes Zuma a weak human being or essentially – or only – a victim of circumstances. He didn’t get to head iMbokodo, ‘the grinding stone’ – ANC’s internal security department – for his affability and his dancing skills. He won real respect for wrestling ANC politics in Kwazulu/Natal back from gangsters like Harry Gwala – and ultimately laid the grounds for the outflanking of the gangsters in the IFP and then led their trouncing at the polls in April.

Jacob Zuma is genuinely liked and the ANC’s election campaign, fronting him as the ‘beloved leader’, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What was cooked up and exaggerated a year ago – by the ANCYL, Cosatu, the SACP and various anti-Mbeki elements – is now true: Jacob Zuma’s forced exit from politics could result in popular unrest and violence.

It means that in government and the ANC power lies around untidily. The kingmakers and pretenders keep picking it up, brandishing it at each other, shrieking to this one to leave it alone and that one to stop undermining the new king and generally behaving like naughty children or a troop of … Lords of the Flies?
Historians and biographers should feel free to tease out Jacob Zuma’s psychology for hints of how he will act in power and for the traces of ideology that might inform his approach to developmental economics, – but they should not think, for a second, this will unravel our history’s code.

Jacob Zuma is caught, as are we all, in the tectonic forces of the global economy, the faltering South African state and the interests of the classes, parties, and organisations that clash and ebb and flow within and across our borders. There are individuals and groups significantly more powerful and consequential than he is around him. This means understanding where we are and where we are going will be considerably more difficult than picking over the minutiae of the essential nature of that accidental president (if ever there was one): Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.

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