YONELA DIKO: Jacob Zuma missed an opportunity to be great


In 1990, Jacob Zuma was chosen by the ANC to be part of a leading team to first engage the National Party on the ‘parameters of negotiations’, what was then called Talks about Talks. Zuma had shown a great understanding of the four pillars of struggle and the necessary adjustments that had to be made in the fast-changing nature of struggle. Zuma also had the qualities that could disarm the enemy in a charged atmosphere through sheer charm and force of will.

In Madiba’s book Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, which Madiba started writing towards the end of his Presidency, but could not finish (the book was later finished by South Africa’s prolific writer, Mandla Langa), Madiba said, Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, and Penuel Maduna were ahead of other comrades, especially in appreciating what was really at stake between 1990 and 1994 and the effort and tact that was needed to get the country over the freedom line.

For example, Madiba received intelligence then that generals, led by Constand Laubscher Viljoen, who would later form the Freedom Front Plus, were planning to disrupt negotiations, kidnap both FW de Klerk and Madiba and take over state power. After Madiba verified the intelligence and found it to be credible, he then decided to apply the big brother tactic of townships. “The township strategy is that when you have a rebel in town, to rein him in, you go have a talk with his older brother.”

Madiba immediately took a long trip to the Wilderness, PW Botha’s retirement home. Madiba then asked Botha to rein in his thugs, even though Madiba knew they were not acting with his blessing. A meeting was later arranged between the generals and ANC. The ANC was represented at that meeting by Zuma, Mbeki and Maduna.

In those fragile times when the National Party itself was divided between De Klerk and the generals (who were vexed by the idea of Afrikaners losing power), an environment which Madiba would describe as like driving in busy traffic with cars coming from all sides, Madiba would rely heavily on Zuma and a few others who knew the balance of power and had the wisdom to keep the end goal alive.


Notwithstanding this unwavering confidence of the ANC and Madiba in Zuma at the negotiation tables, when the exiles came back, Madiba did ask about Zuma, so he was not unaware of Zuma’s excesses, but his strengths were more important to Madiba, especially during the transition.

One comrade whom Madiba asked about Zuma and who had spent enough time with Zuma in Mozambique, tried not to give away too much, but did tell Madiba that Zuma seemed more at ease among his own tribe. The comrade chose not to tell Madiba that when he arrived in Mozambique to join Zuma, Joe Modise had just stopped a secret enterprise Zuma was running to build a personal fiefdom using weapons and money meant for the struggle.

Zuma also seemed reckless and ill-disciplined, if not too carefree for a wanted man by the cruel and vicious apartheid government. He came in and out of South Africa too loosely and too easily without ever being caught. There is an incident in Swaziland where Mbeki, who was Zuma’s senior at the time, had rejected Zuma’s request to enter into South Africa from Swaziland incognito. The risk was too high and Zuma had no clear purpose for entering the country, or at least there was no reason to think whatever he was coming inside the country to do could not be accomplished differently. Shortly after that refusal, Mbeki was called up to the ANC head office in Lusaka and replaced by another Cde. Zuma, for reasons only clear to him, decided to take advantage of this transition and told his new boss that Mbeki had approved his trip back into South Africa. The new comrade had no reason to doubt Zuma, although he was puzzled that a cautious Mbeki would approve of such an adventurous move.

All these shortcomings, however, did not remove Zuma’s clear and evident leadership qualities that would come in handy during the fragile transitional period. It was once the ANC won the elections and was in charge of the state and its largesse that the wheels seemed to fall off for Zuma.


Zuma entered the new dispensation as a star performer having been one of the key players in the difficult effort of bringing relative peace and political stability in KwaZulu-Natal. He had secured himself a place both in the national leadership of the ANC and provincial cabinet of the executive in KwaZulu-Natal.

After getting his first government job as MEC in the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal, some historians say Zuma’s life began to unravel. He took out a spree of loans from all the country’s banks. He did this without ever thinking about how he was going to repay these loans. The banks, of course, could not deny loans to someone who was not only a senior government official, but held national political office and was by any prediction, destined for office in national government. This, however, meant there was very little limit to loans Zuma could take, until he could not honour the payments and which began to cause much consternation with the said banks. At least until he became Deputy President. There is nothing that leads to corruption more than being highly indebted. Zuma was using his political currency to solve his personal financial problems.

Part of the problem is that Zuma returned from exile with two wives and 9 children, to his third wife and other children at home. This meant that Zuma came back with huge personal responsibilities that required immediate and large amounts of money which the salary of a civil servant just could not satisfy.

Inevitably, his personal needs immediately jumped to the top of his priority list, over and against the needs of the people. His needs trumped his moral compass and led him down a destructive path of criminality and abuse of power. Faced with power and money, ministerial budget in his hands, power given by the people, money belonging to the people, Zuma turned monochrome, inward and selfish, and ultimately abused both the power and the people’s resources entrusted to him by the people and the party he represented, the ANC.

Every other bad decision - from Shabir Shaik’s financing of his life and children’s life quid pro quo, through to the arms deal - would flow from this high level of indebtedness and this desire for a king’s life on a civil servant’s paycheque.


The first thing Zuma needed was a home. A home befitting a king. Nkandlagate began almost as soon as Zuma’s Presidency began. By March 2014, when then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela tabled her monumental report 'Secure in comfort', the bill to build Zuma’s private home had skyrocketed from R27 million (which was already too high) to over R246 million of taxpayers’ money. As Zuma would have wanted, it was one of the most opulent and extravagant homes in KwaZulu-Natal.

Unfortunately, despite many departments - police, public works and defence - and Parliament working together to protect Zuma from accountability for building a private compound using public money, the last state entity to preserve sanity in this madness became the Public Protector. Madonsela could not be pulled into the grand scale of corruption and in mid-March 2014, Zuma’s world was hit with its biggest crack yet, and it would be downhill from there, culminating in the release of the ‘Secure in Comfort' report which made damning findings against the sitting president. This was unheard of in our new democracy.

Zuma would then spend much of his time trying to prevent institutions of government from holding him to account and sending him to jail.


Zuma was an outstanding leader of the ANC and for him to be chosen first among equals - in a room with comrades like Simon Makana, John Motshabi, Gertrude Shope, Pallo Jordan and Mac Maharaj, Joel Netshitenzhe, Vusi Mavimbela, Masabala Bonnie Yengwa, Job Tlhabane, Hermanus Gabriel Loots, Jeff Radebe, Thabo Mbeki, Joe Nhlanhla, Peter Ramokoa, Manala Manzini and Albie Sachs - it means he was indeed destined for great things.

None would have expected that he would turn against the people and take the country on a road to ruin.

Zuma is now in jail, and he has no one to blame for his shameful fall but himself.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko

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