Niccolo MachiavelliJacob Zuma has forced me to reread Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s The Prince, published 500 years ago this year.

He (Jacob Zuma) didn’t threaten me with the red lightsaber or catch me in a honey trap. My natterings, fortunately, are not impactful enough to draw the attentions of the Dark Lord (Darth Vader, dah! – ed) or his stormtroopers.

The compulsion comes from watching, slack-jawed, as Jacob Zuma skips happily across the backs of starving crocodiles – on his way, off towards the welcoming horizon.

Surely the world was an intrinsically hostile place for a black baby boy, born to a single-parent mother (who was also a domestic worker) in the South Africa of 1942? Surely when he received no formal education any chance of success in life would have become vanishingly small – in the estimation of a wandering actuarial statistician, perhaps?

When Jacob Zuma went to prison and then later was repeatedly caught with his hands in all sorts of cookie jars I imagine the hypothetical actuary would have confidently predicted a life of ignominy and poverty.

But instead Jacob Zuma is picking up an honorary Doctorate of Leadership from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technolog(who writes the script of the world? … no ordinary mortal would dare make this shit up – ed) and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and undoubtedly stashing bits of his loot in safe houses in Malaysia.

My second post on this website in mid-2009 titled The Accidental President (catch that here) argued that Zuma’s rise was pure chance and contingency. But when the same random set of things happens over-and-over (Jacob Zuma escapes danger with a sack full of cash) you have to start questioning whether this is purely the shambolic interactions of events, people, history and the world.

Politics is about power (yes, I know, we have heard that somewhere before). Power is agency, the ability to make stuff happen, to make people do your bidding and to make situations turn out in a particular way. Political analysis is the analysis of how (and why) power is exercised.

Which brings me back to Machiavelli.

I read The Prince when I was about 17 and, clearly, I didn’t understand a bleeding word.

I vaguely remember being outraged and confused by the book.  Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as having said The Prince is a handbook for gangsters (which is a great line but there is much debate as to whether the great logician himself actually said it).

However, I am now kicking myself that I haven’t been reading and rereading The Prince every year – and in the flush of my transient enthusiasm, I promise myself I will do so from now on until I die … or perhaps I will stop a little before.

(As an aside: I was halfway through the book when the Syrian nerve gas story broke. I was glad to have Machiavelli as a companion to think about how those with agency might cause, or allow, such things to happen and why they might do so.)

So, anyway … Jacob Zuma is the Prince and I doubt he ever needed a Machiavelli to tell him how to be what he is and how to do what he does.

Here is the opening dedication. It’s quite compellingly mysterious to those among us who are a little thin on our Florence-during- the-Renaissance, but it is also a good explanation of the work that follows:

Dedication: To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici

It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness. Desiring in like manner to approach your Magnificence with some token of my devotion, I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity. Which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence. And though I deem the work unworthy of your greatness, yet am I bold enough to hope that your courtesy will dispose you to accept it, considering that I can offer you no better gift than the means of mastering in a very brief time, all that in the course of so many years, and at the cost of so many hardships and dangers, I have learned, and know.

This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings; since it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.

Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.

Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognize my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you. Should you from the height of your greatness some time turn your eyes to these humble regions, you will become aware how undeservedly I have to endure the keen and unremitting malignity of Fortune.
Niccolò Machiavelli


I know how Niccolò feels. Sometimes these humble regions are just that little too humble. However, I would have been more cautious about calling for the Prince’s attention if I was Machiavelli. If the Prince read the little book, then the Prince would know that Machiavelli had the Prince’s number and that Machiavelli had rewritten the handbook. Which I can’t imagine would have charmed the Prince.

I will attempt a ‘highlights package’ of The Prince and possibly some learned comments (which are unlikely to be as good as you will find in this interesting article and interview). For the keenest among you, there are several places on the internet where The Prince is downloadable for no charge – I am sure the copyright has long expired … or rather I hope so. My copy, which is in electronic form on my laptop, originates at:

Finally, Jacob Zuma still has a few crocodiles to hop on before he reaches safety. I still think that the odds are against him, but I am not an actuarial statistician, wandering or otherwise . I draw comfort purely from the certainty that no-one, ultimately, gets out of this alive.