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Book Excerpt: Zuma: a Biography by Jeremy Gordin

Zuma, A biographyOne of the few occasions when Zapiro got it wrong has stuck in my head from the moment the cartoon was published. It showed COSATU Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi floating on a surfboard on a perfectly calm ocean, spouting off about the “Zuma tsunami”. The message was that the tsunami was happening only in Vavi’s head. To me, it just seemed like wishful thinking on Zapiro’s part.

And of course, Jacob Zuma was the real-tsunami-deal. He swamped South Africa in his unstoppable rise to the top of the ANC, and left our political landscape littered with the drowned.

Journalist Jeremy Gordin has been around for most of Zuma’s latter-day Poseidon Adventure. His book, Zuma: A biography started attracting controversy while the ink was still wet on the cover – and hasn’t stopped. A lightning rod subject will do that to a book.

Jonathan Ball has now published, in successive years, the biographies of the two top dogs in SA politics. Here’s an excerpt from the book about the man whose fortunes seem to keep trending up:

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from Chapter 16, “The Zuma Tsunami”

Right from the start, on Sunday morning, 16 December 2007, the chairman of the anc, Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota, never stood a chance. He would shout a rousing ‘amandla’, clearly expecting an ‘awethu’ in response. But the 4 000 delegates, or what seemed like most of them, simply went on singing ‘Awuleth’ mashini wami’, Jacob Zuma’s trademark song, and waving placards with Zuma’s picture on them. They were doing it on purpose because it had been only a couple of months before that Lekota had complained bitterly about Zuma singing the struggle song.

Trying to quiet down the crowd and grasp their attention, Lekota shouted ‘amandla’ even more loudly and firmly. But the delegates at the anc’s 52nd annual conference weren’t having any of that. They sang ‘Bring me my machine gun’ even more loudly, at least four or five times.

The delegates effectively shut Lekota out of the conference that he was supposed to be chairing and leading. The anc’s leaders, including those at the front table on the stage – Thabo Mbeki, Zuma, Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe, Treasurer-General Mendi Msimang and Deputy Secretary-General Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele looked sombre and seemed flummoxed. Even Zuma, who appeared extremely tense – his facial muscles were bunched like a fist – did not smile at the singing of ‘his’ song.

It got worse. When Lekota showed he was irritated and growing angry, the crowd stood up and made the signal of soccer fans when they want one player substituted for another – they bicycled their arms around and around in the air. It was also said to be the sign of ‘the Zuma tsunami’. The delegates were telling Lekota in no uncertain terms that they wanted ‘change’ – that it was time for him and others to go.

Lekota had not even left his starting blocks. He still needed to have the conference programme and rules adopted by the conference. But he was never allowed to move beyond calling for a proposer – when he would be interrupted. The delegates fell silent only when Motlanthe came to the podium.

The stifling heat in the gigantic marquee on the Turfloop campus of the University of Limpopo did not help much. But, whatever the weather, it was clear that an overwhelming number of the delegates had come to the conference unwilling to concede an inch to those perceived as Mbeki supporters or as being against Zuma. Large blocs of delegates, those from the provinces that nominated Zuma for the anc presidency, behaved truculently. They waited for the ‘top table’ to walk into the hall, and as the video cameraman focused on individual nec members and their faces flashed on to the big screen, those leaders aligned to Mbeki were roundly booed. Those allied to Zuma received loud applause.

Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad, former Speaker of the House Frene Ginwala and Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula were all booed. Blade Nzimande, transport minister Jeff Radebe, former premier of Mpumalanga Mathews Phosa, sacp Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin and Motlanthe were all cheered by the crowd.

In a clearly stage-managed move, Mbeki and Zuma entered the marquee together, so that it was not clear who received the most support. Delegates, however, burst out, ‘Zuma, Zuma, Zuma’ and sang Umshini wami for a long time despite Lekota’s calls for order. Zuma looked straight ahead, or pretended to be studying the papers in front of him, while Mbeki, looking uncomfortable, spoke to Mthembi-Mahanyele and Motlanthe.

Zuma supporters began the conference by fighting to have the counting of votes done manually. They have claimed that computers could be manipulated and bring in a pro-Mbeki result. The anc Youth League had strongly opposed the notion of electronic vote counting and continued doing so, repeatedly proposing that votes be counted manually so that there could be no gerrymandering, until Motlanthe had to step in and restore calm, as he did a number of times during the morning’s proceedings.

anc electoral commission chair Bertha Gxowa evoked a chorus of boos when she told delegates that the counting of votes would take place electronically. ‘Comrades, we should not spend so much time on this. Where disputes crop up, the votes would be counted manually,’ she said.

Earlier, Eastern Cape Zuma loyalist Phumulo Musualle of the sacp, addressing delegates from Eastern Cape’s OR Tambo region outside the main conference venue, had said: ‘Our position is that all votes should be counted manually. We reject any suggestion to have votes counted by a computer as that could easily lead to vote-rigging.’

‘What is not transparent about electronic counting?’ Lekota asked.

The Youth League’s Sihle Zikalala replied that manual counting was preferred because the anc was a ‘transparent organisation’.

Not long after these opening salvoes, veteran photographer Alf Khumalo made his way into the cordoned-off vip area to show Mbeki and Zuma some pictures from the 1950s. He said he found Mbeki, his wife, Zanele, and Zuma seated together laughing.

‘It was a total contrast to inside the hall,’ said Khumalo. ‘There was no animosity – just warmth and laughter.’

By the end of the first day of the conference, even diehard opponents of Mbeki were expressing sympathy for him. The hostility shown to him by members of his own party must surely have been one of the most humiliating episodes of his life.

At first it had seemed that the antipathy of most of the delegates was aimed at Lekota. Then Mbeki took the podium and delivered his long political report, summing up the events and achievements of the past few years. He was not interrupted but when he asked at one point, ‘What divides us?’ members of the Youth League and delegates from KwaZulu-Natal responded: ‘You!’

‘What should be done?’ Mbeki also asked at one point during his speech.

‘Step down,’ howled a number of delegates.

Mendi Msimang, the anc treasurer-general, was booed and shouted down as he berated the delegates for misbehaving. He said they should allow Lekota to carry out his duties and that they had misbehaved while the cameras were focused on them and now the whole world ‘knew about them’.

The giant white marquee was a place of tension, animosity and, above all, mistrust. Yet, listening the next day to Jeff Radebe and Smuts Ngonyama, both members of the nec, one might have thought that the 4 000-plus delegates had spent the day having a teddy bear’s picnic in a Limpopo meadow. It wasn’t until deep into their press conference that Radebe finally conceded that ‘Well, yes, the atmosphere yesterday was not what we are used to at anc conferences. The tension was very visible; you could cut it with a knife.’

Asked about specific behaviour by delegates that he found objectionable, Radebe replied: ‘It’s very unusual that speaking delegates are booed down.’

Ngonyama’s deadpan response was: ‘We have a very vibrant, cohesive conference today, unlike yesterday, when we had some challenges.’

Nominations for the position of anc president and the other top officials in the party were supposed to be dealt with in a session late on Sunday night. But the conference had adjourned early because, Ngonyama said, a hastily formed conference steering committee had to deal with the accreditation of delegates and look at ‘the business of conference on many fronts’.

Radebe said that the steering committee had discussed delegates’ behaviour. Delegates would no longer be allowed to carry placards ‘with the faces of comrades standing for positions’ in the conference venue. Asked about ‘the deep mistrust’ that had been evident in the hall – as characterised by the Youth League’s Sunday proposal that electronic vote-counting be disallowed because it lent itself to vote-rigging – Ngonyama appeared a little baffled but said that ‘some people in the anc were quite young and perhaps they don’t really understand. They don’t really know perhaps that there has never been any vote-rigging during the anc’s history.’

Journalists pressed Radebe and Ngonyama, but both seemed unimpressed by the seriousness of the party’s own Youth League suggesting that someone might be cheated by the party’s own electoral officers.

‘I think it’s just that people want things to be precise and exact,’ said Ngonyama, still looking a little baffled. At any rate, though the party’s electoral commission had decided that manual vote-counting could be used for both the top six leadership positions and the 60 National Executive Committee (nec) positions, the steering committee would still decide on the rest of the elections because it would affect logistics.

The conference was still scheduled to end on the Thursday, said Ngonyama, as many delegates had responsibilities elsewhere and, Radebe added, the cost of extending the event would be a concern. Then all the hacks shuffled off to wait for what everyone was really interested in: the outcome of the clash for the top post between Mbeki and Zuma, the only two people whose names had emerged in provincial pre-conference nomination conferences.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille had slammed the singing of Zuma’s anthem. ‘What will the world conclude about delegates who sing “Bring me my machine gun” – and that on the official Day of Reconciliation?’ she demanded. No one in Polokwane – neither officials nor journalists – seemed to care either way.

Zuma was chosen as the anc party president on 18 December 2007. He received 2 329 votes to Mbeki’s 1 505 votes.

During the hours before Zuma was proclaimed president, his close friends suggested that he prepare for a party and draft a press statement. He responded with a Zulu proverb: ‘The makhoti [bride] should not prepare the bridal bed until the groom actually arrives.’ And, while it seemed that many of Zuma’s supporters had already started celebrating well before the election results were announced, and while many hundreds certainly spent most of the night carousing, Zuma returned from the conference to the place where he was staying in Polokwane, 30 km away.

‘Yes, and he spent the rest of the evening quietly, with some family members,’ said his son Saady.

Zuma continued as softly-softly the day after the results, cancelling a media conference until he had had time ‘to talk to the delegates themselves first – after all, they’re the ones who voted me in’. He spent most of the day after in discussions with the other five new members of the anc leadership: Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Chairman Baleka Mbete, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, Deputy sg Thandi Modise and Treasurer-General Mathews Phosa.

‘JZ is remarkable … He’s just quiet, calm … he’s like a man at peace with himself,’ said Ranjeni Munusamy.

I visited Zuma late on Wednesday night and he was indeed quiet and composed, though tired and a little tense. He was working on his speech with Lakela Kaunda, who had been his spokesperson in the days when he was deputy president of the country. We talked a little about ‘inflation targeting’ – journalists were always nagging him about his ‘economic plans’, which was slightly annoying for him because his plans for the economy were going to be those set out by the anc.

Meanwhile, Zuma’s allies in Cosatu and the sacp held a joint press conference at which Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin and Zwelinzima Vavi made it clear that they did not consider Zuma indebted to them, and that claims that he was so irritated them deeply. Asked about his earlier comment, in connection with Cosatu support for Zuma, that ‘there are no free lunches’, Vavi said that this did not mean Zuma would have in some way to toe the Cosatu economic line.

‘The anc has a policy, and we are mostly with that policy,’ said Vavi. ‘The point about comrade Zuma is that we will now be free to engage openly with the National Executive Committee and the party on our economic views.’

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Book Details


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