February 14, Valentine’s Day, found Jacob Zuma in denial about his perilous position on the brink of a parliamentary no-confidence vote brought by his own party. The police and prosecution service had already shifted their allegiances to his successor Cyril Ramaphosa, which gave the crisis the feeling of a regime change. The president’s co-conspirators in the Gupta family were on the run. The company offices through which they had looted billions or tens of billions of dollars were abandoned. We heard that the president’s favored son, Duduzane, was finally going to be charged for an incident in 2014 when he collided with a minibus in his Porsche and killed a woman. (Phumzile Dube’s family received around $300 in compensation for her death.)
At first Zuma had been expected to serve the eighteen months remaining in his term. By mid-February he had proposed a three-month “notice period” during which he would introduce Ramaphosa to the African Union and the United Nations. In the middle of the afternoon Zuma delivered a rambling account of his views to the national broadcaster. He wasn’t defying his party. He was merely taking a different view: “Why must I be persuaded to resign? Have I done anything wrong?” By the end of the day, however, he had tendered his resignation with a dark warning about “serving the very interests of the oppressors of yesteryear, who joyfully celebrate as we lynch one another.” Numerous jokes and cartoons followed on the theme of Valentine’s Day along with the reminder that, on the same day in 2013, Oscar Pistorius had murdered Reeva Steenkamp.
The global scandal of Donald Trump, like Zuma highly promiscuous and a figure of the grotesque and the laughable, has yielded much useful reflection on democracy, including the fact that the problem of love in politics is more complicated than it had seemed. The unattractiveness of Zuma and Trump is inscribed in everything from their ungainly physical presence to their ugly habits of casual lying and worse. Zuma’s rise was hindered neither by his having driven a wife to suicide nor by the charge of having raped the daughter of one of his close friends. The ruling party’s Women’s League demonstrated outside his rape trial under a singular banner—“Burn the Bitch”—and, by some stroke of fortune, the victim’s house was indeed burnt down and she was forced into exile: one of the many occasions on which sections of the public have made clear their identification with the abuser. He bankrupted the country while reducing his party to a criminal enterprise. Yet he had no apparent charisma on Robben Island where, during the ten years of his imprisonment, he received not a single visitor. (His family’s poor circumstances undoubtedly played a role in his isolation.)
Zuma’s Valentine’s Day interview was, to my recall, the only time he had tried to explain his thinking in public in more than a decade. It pointed to an under-analyzed aspect of postcolonial governmentality, the committee man and committee government, which in the postcolony shades into tyranny. With the important exception of Mandela’s presidency, the ANC has represented itself less as a political party and more as a glorified committee, with the love of rationalization and procedural obscurity entailed by that fact. At the end Zuma had only that language of the committee to hold on to. He rejected a “very immature politics of analyzing. So this I explained as well so that everybody should be very clear that there is nothing that you can say is a problem. There is no problem. This has been done. There has never been a problem. . . . The ANC has always seen things correctly.” The party had been perfectly correct on every issue, during the six decades in which he had served it, except for the single issue of his resignation: “The officials couldn’t provide what I had done, but it was basically put that there’s a good mood in the country and it must be maintained . . . Once that motivation is made, it becomes more important to hear have I done something wrong, because that suggests if I’m not there, the situation might perhaps be different.”
The situation is different. In office for a few days Cyril Ramaphosa has demonstrated bureaucratic efficiency. Public servants of probity, like Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, who had been fired and even prosecuted by Zuma, have been restored to the councils of government. What can they do? It may be that the country cannot be saved—only, for the time being, stabilized.1
Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this piece misspelled Oscar Pistorius’s name, and neglected to mention the role Zuma’s poverty played in his isolation at Robben Island. Both have been amended. ↩