There is an old saying: There is no honourable end to a political career. It is either death or disgrace.
I thought a lot about this, as the whole world (including the South African media) piled scorn on former President Zuma, who wakes up this morning in his cell in the correctional facility at Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal.
Eleven short years ago, he swept to power on a wave of Zumaphoria akin to the Ramaphoria of 2019 — until it all went so horribly wrong.
During his Presidency, I got to know Zuma, the man (rather than the politician), reasonably well, and had many personal interactions with him outside the political arena. This is what I reflect on today.
Before my words get twisted and misinterpreted, let me state the obvious: contempt of the Constitutional Court, especially by a former President, deserves a jail sentence. Millions of words have been written on this theme this week, and I do not intend to add to them.
My reflections are entirely personal. President Zuma and I were arch political opponents. I was at the forefront of the strategy, that eventually succeeded, to have the 783 charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering reinstated against him, after they were unlawfully withdrawn in order to enable him to become President.
Yet despite that, he was unfailingly warm and humane in his treatment of me personally.
I will never forget that, shortly after I had been suspended by my own party, during a time when I was almost completely shunned by people in the DA whose lives and careers I had helped build, it was President Zuma who reached out to me. I was stunned into disbelief when he made contact with and urged me to “have courage” and said he understood how difficult things must be for me. This conversation was one of the few times, during that personal ordeal, when the tears streamed down my face, because this encounter was so counter-intuitive. He did not have to reach out to me.
He had nothing at all to gain from this. This act of personal kindness reflected who he was. Yes, politics turned him into a wily and crafty man, but the real President Zuma, underneath it all, often shone through. Personal warmth and empathy lay at the heart of it. It was not an affected charm. It was sincere.
I first became aware of this side of his being shortly after the 2009 election, in which we had been bitter rivals. Against the odds, the DA had won the Western Cape with an overall majority, and (as Premier) I was due to attend my first Cabinet Lekgotla — the extended ANC Cabinet nationally, which included all the provincial premiers. It is a large gathering, and I was going to be the only non-ANC person present.
This didn’t faze me at all. But I remember being at an event in Nyanga, to open a football facility in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, when one of my assistants came rushing up to me, saying “Switch on your phone. President Zuma is trying to call you.” I duly did so, it rang — and there was his unmistakable voice on the other end. After the initial pleasantries he said: “You will be at your first Cabinet Lekgotla tomorrow. Everyone there will be ANC except you. I just want you to know that you will be warmly welcomed and that you should not feel afraid” — or words to that effect.
I was blown away. Here he was, a newly elected President, with an enormous work-load, especially in preparation for a major Lekgotla, and with a million things on his mind, he managed to spare a thought for a political opponent, and phone her to put her mind at ease because he could empathise about how I might be feeling.
It is worth mentioning that, at the time, I was working hard to reverse the NPA’s withdrawal of charges against him — and yet, he phoned me to ease the tension he imagined I must be feeling.
At these gatherings, he always called me “Ntombi” — little girl –and I was never insulted, as my feminist heart might suggest, because he meant it as a gesture of warmth, and that is how I took it.
Once, after a Lekgotla, he invited us all for a big dinner at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, his Pretoria residence, and there was dancing afterwards. I recount in my memoirs how, as I was chatting to the other Premiers, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there he was, asking me to dance. I was terrified, because I have two left feet and have never learnt to foxtrot. But the President told me to relax and just follow his moves. He was a brilliant ballroom dancer, and I learnt more from him that night than I have learnt in several formal lessons, before or since. I still have a little video of that dancing lesson, that the Director General took, and sent me afterwards.
So where did it all go wrong? I have spent much time, during the past ten years, observing and writing about politics, and especially seeking to bring President Zuma to justice, trying to answer this question.
At the heart of it, this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society.
President Zuma is a traditionalist, totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism, thrust into the role of President — whose primary duty is to serve and defend the Constitution. A total misalignment.
He often said, including to me, that the concept of corruption was a “Western thing” — and from his vantage point, I eventually understood what he meant. Whenever I went campaigning in a traditional area of South Africa, under the control of a Chief, I was first obliged to go and seek permission from the Chief, and usually bring a gift to seek his favour. I always felt terribly uncomfortable doing so — After, all I did not have to ask anyone’s permission to exercise a constitutional right anywhere in South Africa, let alone bring a gift to exchange for that “permission”. But I was told every time that I had to do so, in order for the people to feel free to come to our meetings and listen to our message, and so I did.
The idea that people are born with inalienable rights that no-one can take away from them, and that elected leaders are there to protect and defend these rights, is indeed a “Western thing”. In traditional societies, the notion that the Chief grants you favours if you seek his favour, is far more prevalent — and it is easy to see how this easily morphs into “corruption”. The leader looks after his own, making the idea of “nepotism” a very “Western thing” as well.
Jacob Zuma didn’t understand all this, and said so openly.
I will never forget him wondering out loud, at an extended Cabinet meeting, how it was possible that judges could tell him what to do.
“I was elected,” he said. “The Judges weren’t. How come they are in a position to tell me what to do?”
This genuinely puzzled him, and he was not afraid to say so. It should have been predictable that he would end up in jail for contempt of court, even before his multiple acts of corruption caught up with him.
At the height of the Nkandla scandal, when we could get no answers out of Parliament on this crucial matter of public interest, the DA decided to walk to Nkandla to see for ourselves. En route, hundreds of people poured out of their poverty stricken homes and shacks to block our way, because they were protecting “their President”. The irony struck me deeply: President Zuma had unlawfully used tens of millions of public money upgrading his luxurious homestead, set amidst grinding poverty, yet the people there came out to defend their “Chief” instead of demanding accountability from him. He was their President. He was entitled to use public resources, and receive gifts in return for favours.
Perhaps more than at any other time, I saw the misalignment between the inherent assumptions of a constitutional democracy and traditional African cultures, which are more aligned to feudalism than the accountability that we demand from our leaders.
The story of Jacob Zuma is one of the personal tragedies that arises from our attempt to take a short-cut through history — which is what we are trying to do in South Africa.
The events of this week were a victory for constitutionalism and the rule of law — and in that sense a huge step forward for South Africa. The enormity of these developments need to be recognised for what they are in our context.
But back to the person who is Jacob Zuma. He achieved the pinnacle of power in a Constitutional Democracy, and used it like a Tribal Paramount Chief — ending up in jail as a consequence.
If I had his phone number now, (and if I knew he has a phone in his cell), I would reach out to him too, and wish him strength and courage, as he did to me at my lowest ebb. Not because I think he has been wronged. He was accorded due process of law and must serve his sentence. But because I know Zuma, the person, not the politician.
– Helen Zille is the chairperson of the DA federal council, former Western Cape premier, and former DA leader.
This piece was originally published on Helen Zille’s Facebook page. You can view it here.