What a difference eight hours makes! Or was Jacob Zuma’s late-night resignation on Wednesday predictable? His interview with the public broadcaster’s Mzwandile Mbetshe earlier in the day suggested that he’d rather face a vote of no confidence than resigning voluntarily. In hindsight, however, the afternoon interview appears to have been necessary, paving the way for the resignation. The interview also signaled that his resignation might not mean the end of this saga.
For starters, Mbetshe’s interview was quite insightful, especially because, and correctly so, he allowed Zuma to express his thoughts and emotions. Zuma saw the interview as a way to influence how the public should see his resignation. His merely reading his resignation speech on television, as he did on Wednesday night, created an impression of a meek figure being hounded out of office. That goes against everything Zuma believes about himself.
Zuma has a masculine, tough-guy concept of leadership. That’s why, when the ANC started talking about his resigning in late 2016, he said: “Ngizwa amahem-hem kuthiwa … hawu seyaphuma uZuma manje sekayi-liability. Ungabi samnaka. Ngathi hee abangazi kahle. [I heard rumours that I’m on my way out because I’m a liability. I said to myself, they don’t know me well.]”
When he feels like he is under siege, or is berated for something, even legitimately, Zuma’s instinct is to assume a defiant posture. His reaction is not to focus on the merits of the issue at hand, but he instead becomes preoccupied with asserting himself. This self-assertion takes precedence over anything else, regardless of the adverse consequences it might invite.
His cancellation of the scheduled 10 am press briefing on Wednesday was not entirely surprising. He probably resented the frenzy and the excitement that the expectation of his resignation elicited. The prospect of resigning that morning must have felt like a surrender to public disapproval of his presidency. Finally, the elite, whom Zuma thinks has always resented him, was going to have their way. That thought alone must have grated Zuma – he would not give them that satisfaction.
Cancelling the morning press conference, therefore, was a snub. But, it was insufficient because it meant that he’d be forced out through a vote of no confidence in Parliament – that’s what the ANC caucus decided to do when it found out he’d canceled the gathering. A vote of no confidence would mean that he would not only be hounded out of office but that the process would proceed without any say from him; that others would determine his fate, with his sheepishly waiting to be chased out. Zuma would not subject himself to that.
His SABC interview, therefore, was his last defiant stand. The secrecy around it was deliberate. He didn’t want to have pundits second-guessing what he was likely to say, but wanted to deliver it himself so it would have maximum impact. And it did. Even the major international news agencies broadcast it live.
The interview was simultaneously informative and worrying. While affirming some of the things we already know about Zuma, it was nevertheless shocking to see how much of a utilitarian approach he has to politics. This makes him quite fickle on principles, with a penchant to say anything to get what he wants in that moment.
He’s devoid of any long-term perspective on things and, because he doesn’t anticipate what’s likely to come later, Zuma says things that he thinks in that moment – even to the point that he contradicts what he said previously.
Take Thabo Mbeki’s resignation in 2008 for instance. Zuma doesn’t want to be recalled by his party, so he says he never supported Mbeki’s recall because it’s not ANC policy. Julius Malema, who was then part of the ANC’s national executive committee that lobbied for the recall, quickly retorted: “He [Zuma] never opposed it, he actively supported it and mobilised all of us to support the removal of Mbeki. CR opposed it and @Gwede Mantashe1 argued that, instead of removing Mbeki, let’s call early elections.”
On Wednesday, Zuma went on to dismiss the idea that the ANC disapproved of having two individuals at the helm together – one of the party and one of the state. When they advanced that argument, Zuma told the ANC’s top six that it was “just an immature way of analysing”. He’d probably forgotten that he had said the same thing publicly.
When asked about this in an interview on Ukhozi FM in 2016, Zuma said: “Mina ngingo munye okholelwa ukuthi awukwazi ukwakha amasaka amabili, ngoba uyabaxanisa. Sizobanga, ngoba phela asifani, nemibono ayifani, nendlela yokuphatha ayifani. Kumel’ umdedele lo sophethe i-ANC. Mawusahleli la uzo man’ uphazamisa. [I’m one of those who believes that you can’t have two people in charge. That makes for conflict because they’re different personalities, with contrasting ideas and leadership styles. The one must make way for the ANC president. Otherwise, if he remains state president, then he’ll be disruptive.]”
During his meeting with the top six on February 4, they called him out on his inconsistency. Rather than concede that he was wrong, Zuma became intransigent. Not only that, as he admitted himself, but “I was a little bit irritated, sharper and rough”.
In other words, Zuma fell back on his instinct: attack. The hostility is fuelled by an innate sense that he’s disliked. Instead of focusing on the merits of the case, Zuma saw the instruction to resign as part of an old campaign to get rid of him. That’s why Mbeki, he explained to the top six, fired him as his deputy president back in 2005 – they’d always wanted to get rid of him.
In other words, Zuma goes through life believing he is a victim. His rural background, lack of formal education and possibly some experiences of prejudice have convinced him that the urban, sophisticated elite looks down upon him. Whenever he’s called to explain himself, he believes he’s being attacked by a section of society that never liked him anyway.
This “elite prejudice” has, in turn, made Zuma bitter.
“Why should I be the subject of scorn when I’ve sacrificed a large part of my life for liberation,” Zuma asks himself, which is why he always replies that “this is unfair”. This further explains why he stopped caring if he pleased the public if he ever did care.
There seemed to be nothing Zuma relished more than offending public sensibilities, which he did by firing Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan, but keeping Faith Muthambi and Bathabile Dlamini. That such reckless actions brought harm to our economy and international reputation was inconsequential to him.
Zuma feels justified in lashing out, which makes it noteworthy that he warned that him being fired might elicit unrest. It may have been part of a tirade, but Zuma feels like he’s being singled out for persecution. That’s what his appearance before the commission of inquiry into state capture and possible legal trial is going to feel like to him. And he’s not the kind of person who gets punished without retaliating. We haven’t seen the last of Zuma.