IN my life I’ve lived through eight national leaders. Four of these were National Party strongmen (Dr Hendrik Verwoed, John Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk) and four have been African National Congress stalwarts (Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Mothlante and Jacob Zuma).
Our current number one, Jacob Zuma, faces unresolved corruption charges, claims of rampant nepotism and a Concourt ruling vis-á-vis Nkandla. Recently, the Public Investment Corporation revealed that it had lost R99 billion within two days of him controversially firing Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, in December last year.
Interestingly, PW Botha also cost the country dearly when in August 1985 he refused to cross the apartheid Rubicon. Watched by over 200 million TV viewers, the finger-wagging Botha caused the rand to crash.
This has led me to wonder how Zuma, he of astounding resilience – a man who rose from abject poverty to the number one job in the ANC – would measure up historically given the current melodrama surrounding his presidency.
After scanning the careers of the eight heads of state, it is evident that Zuma, like Botha, did not emerge out of a political vacuum. Politicians have party-bound careers, but there is always an element of personality that is stamped on their style of leadership, this reflecting the strengths, the foibles and the weaknesses of the person in question.
The first I remember is Dr Hendrik Verwoed. Fired up by memories of the Anglo Boer War, he was virulently anti-British. Verwoed was an academic of sweeping eloquence. The late Helen Suzman once told me that he was “strangely mesmerising, but utterly terrifying” when you heard him talk.
Verwoed was a die-hard segregationist who’d accused General Smuts – an ambivalent segregationist himself – of pampering blacks. It was in 1950 as Minister of Native Affairs that Verwoed displaced 80, 000 people from Sophiatown and Newclere.
As a Minister, Verwoed also made his infamous utterance about the necessity for inferior black education. He became Prime Minister in 1958. He witnessed Sharpeville and as an ardent nationalist, seceded from the commonwealth.
Verwoed, forever the semantic gymnast, argued that blacks were not really South Africans, and owed their loyalties to tribal affiliations and distant homelands, poverty-stricken entities that constituted less than 10% of the land.
I can still remember the fateful spring September day that Verwoed was assassinated. The baton he handed over to his successor, Johannes Balthazar Vorster, was hardly the Afrikaner nirvana – but grand apartheid, growing isolation, land dispossession, black poverty and township crime.
Vorster, described by historian Herman Gillomee as “very charming and (yet) very chilling”, was to me a cold figure entirely without charm, his bushy eyebrows and dour demeanour creating the impression of an Orwellian big brother.
Formerly of the pro-Nazi Ossewa Brandwag, he’d been detained in the 1940s, and as Police and Prisons Minister, oversaw increased detention without trial. Under Vorster’s watch there were incursions into Angola, mass bannings, attempts at African détente, Steve Biko’s death, the 1976 uprising (which he saw as a security failure) and the Info Scandal, which finally undid him.
When PW Botha rose to the helm of the Nationalist Party in 1978, I was working in the media. Minister of Community Development and then Defence, he enjoyed a fearsome reputation due his short fuse, and was dubbed the Groot Krokodil.
Showing the symptoms of a stroke in the 1980s that affected his humour, Botha was one day a stubborn bully, the next a pragmatist sipping tea with Mandela. I remember Botha as the State of Emergency President, a man who tinkered with grand apartheid reform, but who overstayed his political welcome, and who slouched bitterly into retirement.
His successor, FW de Klerk, was a surprise. Like many, I’d felt that Foreign Affairs Minister, Pik Botha, would have got the nod. Instead it was De Klerk, a conservative, who walked into office. But the dye had already been cast, and in February 1990 he announced the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the anti-apartheid movement.
De Klerk was chiefly a transitional figure, and it was Mandela who became the colossus. An icon of the 20th century, it was the presidential Madiba who set the stage for South Africa’s post-apartheid evolution when he stepped down in 1999.
He cast a long, deep shadow, but the technocrat and former deputy-president, Thabo Mbeki, took the mantle. Celebrated for his Afro-centric diplomacy, he did suffer weaknesses at home, though. His recall before his second term concluded, ostensibly due to allegations of political interference with Zuma (in reality his bitter rival for ANC leadership) on corruption charges, saw a lifelong career in the ANC grind to a halt.
The august Kgalema Mothlante served a short term before Zuma was voted in as the country’s president in 2009. Whilst Zuma initially wanted to reduce the distance between the people and political leadership – seen as the antithesis of the more formal Mbeki presidency – many now argue that Zuma (a communist in his youth) floundered on the rocks of bourgeois self-enrichment.
Comparisons are odious, and I know they might infuriate our number one, but he does need to know that of all the South African heads of state I’ve witnessed since the 1950s, he carries the most baggage in terms of corruption, nepotism, sycophantic appointments, state capture and the art of self-preservation. The fact that the political paradigm has changed so dramatically since 1994 becomes a further indictment on his executive performance.
Of course, not all our ills can be attributed to Zuma – and, God forbid, I’m certainly not implying that the apartheid leaders were better men – but the point is that each post-apartheid president has had the unique opportunity to stand at the brink of greatness; the opportunity to transform a diverse and dynamic society into an international example of peace and prosperity.
But how can we remember the National Development Plan when the ghosts of Guptagate, Richard Mdluli, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Dudu Miyeni, Marikana, Tom Moyane, Berning Ntlemeza, Nkandla, the arms deal, the Russian nuclear deal, Operation Fiela and the Al-Bashir saga crowd the landscape?
These are the things that our number one has to seriously ponder in the deep of night. The question is, though, will he be allowed to do so? One fears that there are just too many distractions as the proverbial fiddle is played on the walls of the Union Buildings, and forces slowly coalesce for a power struggle within the ANC that will soon envelop us all, whether we like it or not.