A few weeks ago, the South African Constitutional Court sent former President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma to prison to serve a 15-month sentence for having refused to co-operate with the Zondo Commission. The Judicial Commission of Inquiry, known as the Zondo Commission, was appointed in 2018 to investigate serious allegations of corruption and ‘state capture’, of which Zuma is accused of being the chief architect. Zuma is, amongst others, being accused of working with an Indian family, the Guptas, in orchestrating ‘state capture.’
Zuma grew up in Nkandla (Kwazulu-Natal), where he was a herd boy looking after his parents’ cattle. He joined the ANC at a very young age, and was later sent to the notorious Robben Island, where he served 10 years for his role in the armed struggle. After his release from prison, he became the ANC’s chief of intelligence in exile. He became State President in 2009 after he and his supporters had outmaneuvered former President Thabo Mbeki at the 2007 Polokwane ANC elective conference. In 2018, he was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa after a nine-year tenure stained by corruption scandals. Despite all these allegations, Zuma is still very popular amongst some activists and grassroots members of the ANC, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
Zuma knows that he is a populist, and one of South Africa’s most colourful politicians with a common touch with ordinary South Africans; and that is a skill that he has always exploited to the maximum. As President, he was often seen addressing supporters while singing his favourite revolutionary song ‘Awuleth’ Umshini Wami’ (Bring me my machine gun). This was often accompanied by him skillfully doing the traditional Zulu dance or indlamu. It was, therefore, little wonder that last week, his supporters gathered at his Nkandla residence in an attempt to prevent his arrest by the police. They were shouting and singing ‘Wenzeni uZuma’, which in English means ‘what has Zuma done?’ In the end, he handed himself over to the police, and there was no drama at his residence.
There are many ordinary South Africans, across the ethnic divide, with whom Zuma strikes a chord, for example former fighters of uMkhonto we Sizwe (ANC’s military wing). However, his support amongst the ANC rank and file members in KZN is beyond doubt. He played a pivotal role to broker a peace deal between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters during the transition period that led to black majority rule in 1994. Before that, the province had been marked by bloody violence involving the supporters of the two movements. It was also only after Zuma became President that the ANC managed to gain political dominance in the province, at the expense of the IFP.
The Zulus, who are estimated to be about 10 million, constitute South Africa’s biggest ethnic group. Zuma’s supporters, especially the Zulus, know how to play the game of numbers, and they also draw heavily on their proud history of being brave warriors who were led by legendary kings like uShaka, Dingaan, etc. During street protests, his supporters would normally organise themselves into impis (armed bands of Zulu warriors). And Zuma knows how to play to their emotions by, for example, drawing a parallel between his current arrest and his previous arrest when he was an ANC activist under Apartheid. Since these corruption allegations against him started a few years ago, he has always played the victim of an ANC power struggle, and he knows that his supporters would swallow that: lock, stock and barrel. Those who underestimate his support may wake up to a rude shock. Commenting on these recent uprisings and damage to infrastructure that Zuma’s supporters are causing in KZN since his arrest, Anthony Turton last week posted the following on his Facebook page: “I have been writing about the growing tension in KZN. I have noted the protest actions are carefully coordinated, and target critical areas of infrastructure that bring the economy to its knees. This highly selective targeting speaks of an underlying sophistication in terms of command and control of a mobile fighting force. The main aggressor is using the guerilla tactic of hit and run, a combination of controlled and focused aggression, and rabid mobility. This is a war of terror and intimidation with roots in the feudal structures of tribalism. It is a war being waged for the hegemony over the ANC.” This is what I mean by Zulu nationalism, which actually borders on chauvinism; and which is now playing itself out around the persona of Zuma. These violent protests are now spreading to other provinces. I must qualify my assertion here regarding Zulu nationalism. I am not implying that all Zulus who are ANC members support Zuma, or that all Zulus are chauvinistic. However, there is no doubting the fact that these uprisings bear the hallmarks of what IFP supporters used to do in the 70s and 80s against ANC supporters; all in the name of Zulu ‘exceptionalism’.
The fact that Zuma was eventually arrested and will now have his day in court is clear testimony that the rule of law is “alive and well” in South Africa. The rule of law simply means that no one is above the law. South Africa has, without a shadow of doubt, set a benchmark for the rest of Africa when it comes to the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. This is the first time in post-apartheid South Africa that a former President has been arrested on corruption-related charges. As a parting shot or as a footnote, I think judge Raymond Zondo, just like Zuma, also happens to be Zulu – a sick twist of fate indeed. If Zuma’s supporters are saying in isiZulu ‘Wenzeni uZuma’, some of us are saying in response ‘uBaba Zuma fakazela ubumsulwa bakho, meaning ‘father/uncle Zuma prove your innocence.’ I rest my case.