If you read the propaganda sheets (and who doesn’t?) you learn that the problems of South Africa were all caused by Jacob Zuma and that the solution to the problem is simple; get rid of Jacob Zuma. This is obviously a pack of lies, a conspiracy theory which panders to the prejudices and the simplistic assumptions of the ignorant and bigoted who make up the bulk of Our Glorious Opposition. In fact, nobody sits down and says “How can I destroy my party, my society and my country to the greatest possible extent?”; even Iago was motivated by spite.
So, what exactly happened? Obviously, some force put Zuma where he is, and some force or forces encouraged Zuma to do what he did, but also encouraged many, many other people to do what they did to get us where we are today. Also obviously, some similar forces have been acting on every other society in the world, for the whole world has been circling the same plughole that South Africa is going down, but let’s focus on South Africa for simplicity without forgetting that we are not unique.
How did Zuma become Deputy President, a job for which he was far from well equipped?
Zuma and Mbeki worked together to neutralise Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal; Mbeki was an outsider there and found Zuma’s schmoozing skills extremely helpful. As a result, this ineptly scheming place-filler whose previous job had been mismanaging ANC Security was pulled up by his fake leopard-skin and turned into a major influential player within the ANC. KwaZulu-Natal was a major part of Mbeki’s plans for the ANC, and by placing a Zulu in a prominent position he believed that he could win Zulu tribalists away from Inkatha — which proved to be the case, especially after Inkatha lost the patronage it enjoyed under apartheid. Mbeki was the obvious heir apparent to the ANC Presidency, and when he became President it was natural for Zuma to be made Deputy President; Mbeki the intellectual planner, Zuma the impulsive but outwardly amiable actor, and both of them formidable back-stabbers.
But the relationship between them naturally changed once the ANC won KwaZulu-Natal. Under Mandela, Mbeki as Deputy President had practically run the country with Mandela as a ceremonial figure. Zuma, on the other hand, was a much less hands-on Deputy President. He was less central to the government; despite having loads of nominally central positions (in charge of arms procurement, in charge of HIV/AIDS policy) he was fairly disengaged from his responsibilities in a way that Rasool, who fulfilled something of the same position with regard to Mbeki’s plans for the Western Cape, was not. So it was evident that Mbeki once again viewed Zuma as a place-holder until someone more suitable could be found, and it was increasingly clear as time went on that the replacement was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex-wife and therefore something of an insult to him as a Zulu tribalist and sexist.
None of this bubbling-under stuff was discussed in public. The ANC didn’t, in those days, wash its dirty linen in public. (Although that’s a good way to get the linen clean, the problem is compounded nowadays because the ANC and its allies tend to use shit instead of soap for its public washing ceremonies.) The ruling class was simply trying to get rid of Mbeki and therefore was not discussing anything he did, and also was trying to get Zuma on side, bribing him and schmoozing with him via bought-and-paid-for organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign.
It’s probable that Mbeki knew perfectly well that Zuma was a crook, although he may not have known the extent of his corruption. Most particularly he probably didn’t know how deeply endebted Zuma had become; Mbeki is far too cautious a person to get into that kind of trouble and probably underestimated the irresponsibility of others. To the extent to which corruption existed, Mbeki doubtless saw it as an opportunity, a tool to use against Zuma. This was his first major mistake, which was compounded when the Scorpions caught Zuma with both hands trapped in the cookie-jar over the corrupt deal he brokered under which his chum Schabir Shaik would front for the French electronics company Thales in supplying credit-card drivers’ licences, a tender worth hundreds of millions and from which Zuma trousered several million. The problem was that Thales had been involved in the arms deal, as had Zuma, and the investigation of the arms deal quickly flung up red flags all around them.
Legally speaking, Zuma should have been charged, so the fact that Shaik was charged and Zuma not must have been as a result of Mbeki’s interference. Why did he do this? Probably the most important reason was that putting Zuma on trial would have been damaging to the ANC (and to some extent to Mbeki himself, since Zuma was his right-hand-man). At least while the trial went on it was possible to pretend that, since Shaik might be found innocent, Zuma could not be held accountable.
Other matters relate to the nature of the judiciary. After the HIV/AIDS fiasco, Mbeki knew quite well that the judiciary was almost as much in the pocket of the ruling class as the media. If Zuma were put on trial, and if the ruling class decided to make trouble for the ANC, they could easily support Zuma by exploiting judicial corruption (as they later in fact did) and then Zuma would be found innocent and Mbeki would be tarnished and accused of misusing state resources. Shaik had no powerful supporters in the ruling class; their only reason for supporting him was making mischief for the ANC, and they could drop him as easily as they were later to drop the Guptas. Hence charging Shaik alone was a lot safer — and if Shaik were found guilty of corrupting Zuma, it would be much more difficult for the most dishonest judge to protect Zuma. Besides, after the HIV-AIDS fiasco, Mbeki was not eager to get into yet another fight with the ruling class.
But this also spun the process out, and this was Mbeki’s second mistake. In retrospect, charging Zuma might have solved the ANC’s problems right there, provided that he was found guilty — and if he had been let off, the situation could not have developed much worse.
Something else which Mbeki didn’t recognise about the consequences of putting Zuma on notice that he could face dismissal and possible prosecution, was that Zuma wasn’t simply afraid of jail. He owed immense amounts of money which he couldn’t possibly pay even from his salary as Deputy President of country and ANC. He desperately needed to hang on to his political offices in order to sustain his lifestyle, and if he did not, he would be ruined. What he needed, therefore, was someone to give him political and financial security against the threat posed by Mbeki — and towards that end he was prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone else. Mbeki created a desperate man with nothing to lose and with the enormous powers of the Deputy Presidency, plus the immense potential powers of the Presidency, and a willingness to promise anyone anything in exchange for financial or political support.
If Zuma could have been excised from the ANC, as Mbeki wished, well and good. However, the trouble was that there were immense forces within the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance who were prepared to cooperate with the kind of man that Zuma had become, and even to go further down the road of corruption which Zuma was treading.
The most immediately helpful forces were in the SACP, the most tight-knit body of people within the Alliance who had been allocated important but boring administrative positions in the ANC because they were considered hard-working and boringly loyal. The unrecognised problem was that they were principally loyal to their own party and only secondarily to the ANC. What many within the ANC, particularly Mbeki’s supporters, failed to recognise, was that the SACP was no longer particularly committed to socialism, in part because it’s only survival potential outside the ANC lay in the sponsorship which it received from business — sponsorship which was provided in return for the favours which the SACP could provide for business. But these favours depended on the SACP having government posts, which were only available through the ANC. Hence unless the SACP could sustain its power within the ANC, it was in danger of fading away. In this sense it was in a similar position, organisationally, to Zuma’s personal position; it could only survive by selling itself and betraying its principles, and therefore it had to do both things as much as humanly possible.
Meanwhile, of course, there was a large contingent of pro-business people within the ANC who had either been talked around into neoliberalism, like Trevor Manuel, or who had been corrupted by corporate interests, like Matthews Phosa. These people would be inclined to pursue the interests of their patrons and would therefore be happy to see a change of attitude within the ANC. They might not be directly supportive of Zuma, but they would be more satisfied with him in power than anyone else simply because he would be likely to leave them alone to pursue their agenda of enriching the wealthiest people in the country at the expense of everyone else.
There was also the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Obviously, the rank and file in these unions were not very interested in seeing rich people empowered and further enriched at their expense, but they were never consulted, only disinformed by their leaders. There were several reasons why COSATU leaders might support this, however. One was that union administration is notoriously financially corrupt and thus subject to simple bribery from business leaders. Another is that many union leaders are accustomed to working closely with business leaders and tend to see the world from their point of view — which would incorporate a Zuma Presidency. Another is that COSATU has historically tended to take its lead almost unquestioningly from the SACP, and with the SACP marching behind Zuma COSATU would be inclined to join the parade.
To this must be added the obvious influence of resentment against the way in which the SACP and COSATU had been sidelined by the ANC’s leadership, merely because they were dishonest, corrupt and deeply mistaken in their views, reasons which the SACP and COSATU felt were unfair (and in the SACP/s case self-evidently untrue since SACP members believe that the Party and the Leader is always right, that two and two make five and that black is white and rich is poor if the Party says so).
So, although Mbeki might have believed that Zuma would not betray the ANC to the white ruling class, and that the right wing and the left wing would never combine against him, actually it was almost inevitable that this would happen, especially at a time when his control of patronage within the ANC was weakening.
This combination of Mbeki’s mistakes and misunderstanding (after ten years of tight-rope walking he seems not to have realised that he could fall) and deep-seated potential corruption within the ANC and its alliance, together with the eagerness of the white ruling class to corrupt the ANC and the alliance and the willingness of the media to hide the truth in the interests of rich people, all goes a long way towards explaining Polokwane. It’s easy to see how this was going to be a disaster. However, the extent of the disaster deserves much closer examination.