The current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has nearly destroyed his country. He rose to power on the negative emotions of a neglected class of people, and he had no idea what to do once there.
Jacob Zuma’s rise to power and destruction has many similarities to Donald Trump’s, and above all the lesson to be learned is that he is real, not just a pixel personality that you can switch off.
Zuma is the third post apartheid president of South Africa. Thabo Mbeki followed Mandela. Mbeki was a fairly weak, insignificant leader who will probably be most remembered for his disbelief that AIDS was a deadly virus. Zuma grandstanded that one: just shower after sex, and you’ll be protected fine.
All three men, Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma, were freedom fighters, principal leaders of the ANC in its revolutionary battle against apartheid. We don’t know much about that period. The historic details have yet to be fettered out, but what was clear as Mandela strode heroically from power was that he wanted others who fought beside him to follow him into power.
Had he not made that clear, things might now be different. Mandela was unique among the revolutionaries: extremely well educated (he was a lawyer) and a sophisticated intellectual. He stood head and shoulders above most of the others in the ragtag rebel group. But the ragtags lingered at the frills of the the gown as it lifted away.
Mbeki wasn’t too bad, just ineffective. But Zuma in contrast to Mbeki was bad and everyone knew it. Towards the end of his first term Mbeiki began to falter. The country was into its second decade of freedom yet millions and millions still didn’t have all they thought they would have when apartheid fell.
Unlike his uncharismatic self, Mbeki’s former comrade, Jacob Zuma, knew exactly how to exploit the widespread malaise. He obtained for himself the symbolic position of President of the Republic. Perfect place for a braggart and oaf: Promises are just hopes. Dreams have no bounds.
It didn’t matter that he had a dozen wives. It didn’t matter that he was rather poor at expensing his extravagance. It didn’t matter that while having no religious background, he adopted religious conservatism and harangued gays and intellectuals. It didn’t matter that he lied.
Remember, he was angling for only the third non-apartheid executive, so critics were wont to bending over backwards before socking it to him. And real opposition — like Bernie — was too new a phenomenon to succeed. Instead, “opposition” was stale and institutionalized, old faces, old people, old Clintons.
That reluctance by astute South Africans to criticize Zuma as he wiggled upwards was identical to American progressives who waited too long to lambast Trump. In both cases there was a very large, mostly uneducated and poorly treated class of people with a lot of gripes that the rogue was organizing. Neglected still again by the elite, they were perfect fodder for a scavanger with ambition.
But it was clear what would happen. One bold journalist dared at the time to enumerate a post Zuma victory:
1. “We will immediately begin a slide to a non-functioning and socialist state.”
2. He will pursue “any agenda he so chooses,” flaunting judicial and legislative checks-and-balances.
3. “South Africa will become the laughing stock of the world.”
The author, Jonty Fisher of the Mail & Guardian, gives a detailed analysis supporting his predictions based on Zuma’s then already erratic and narcissistic behaviors.
It’s come true. South Africa today is a mess. There’s violent protests everywhere. The Rand has lost almost half its value. The economy has teetered in and out of recession.
Meanwhile, Zuma bronx-cheers the legislature and simply ignores the judiciary, refusing with abandon to follow the dictates of the constitution. Read my many blogs about this, from the student uprising, to the police brutality, to national strikes to a plummeting economy.
South Africans are as mired in institutional politics as the U.S. A brilliant constitution is emaciated by an executive who hardly knows how to read and a legislature too polarized and frightened to lift a hand to try to stop him. Dictators don’t just fall off the shelf: they’re lifted off.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, South Africa doesn’t start many wars and doesn’t have 1813 nuclear missiles. The damage Zuma spreads every way he turns is limited to his own country.
America has had a hard time learning from history, especially from its own past mistakes much less a country half way around the world.
If Trump wins it will not be a surprise, and what follows should not be, either. If he doesn’t win, Clinton is hardly the person to remove Americans from the quagmire of their institutionalized politics. In my mind it’s a lose-lose situation, albeit less upheaval with Clinton may give the beast time to clear its head.
We just want it to be over. It’s too late this time to heed history.