🔒 RW Johnson: “Foolish old man” Jacob Zuma and the MKP disaster

In a tale echoing Shirley Williams’ political missteps, Jacob Zuma’s re-emergence mirrors her downfall. From ANC prominence to leading the MKP, Zuma’s impulsive decisions and lack of structure have led to chaos. His hasty purges and erratic manifesto blend Marxism with Zulu feudalism, baffling voters. Rejected by the GNU and KZN government, the MKP’s disarray disappoints supporters expecting patronage. Zuma’s legacy risks a farcical end, echoing Williams’ journey from promise to political irrelevance.

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By R.W. Johnson   ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Shirley Williams was one of the “Gang of Four” British Labour MPs who broke away to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981, she was talented, famous and well-liked – and she quickly made a complete hash of her political career. First, a by-election occurred in the safe Labour seat of Glasgow Hillhead and her colleagues pressed her to stand. She demurred, feeling the seat was hopelessly Labour. So Roy Jenkins ran instead, waged a good campaign, very nearly won – and became the hero of the hour. Williams, miffed, decided that whatever by-election came up next, she must run. 

The next by-election was in Crosby, a true blue Tory seat. Williams charged in, campaigned hard and valiantly lost. Psyched up by the contest she declared that, whatever happened, she would be back to fight and win the seat in the next General Election. But, of course, as that election neared she looked again at the huge Tory majority in Crosby and decided to renege on her pledge and seek a more winnable seat somewhere else – thus earning herself much mockery and criticism. 

Shirley, the daughter of the Labour Party’s chairman, was a favourite child of the Labour Party. From the earliest age she got jobs and opportunities galore, quickly got a winnable seat and was soon promoted to the front bench. For her the Labour Party was like a vast, helpful extended family, guiding her along, pushing her forward. But then when she left it for the SDP, she was suddenly on her own. Instead of Labour HQ selecting a winnable constituency for her, squaring the local constituency association and generally oiling the wheels, she had had to make all her own decisions. And she had done so purely on impulse – the classic trait of a spoilt child – with disastrous results.

I re-tell this story because it seems to me the key to why Jacob Zuma has made such a dreadful mess of his political re-launch. Zuma is not an able or an educated man and when he returned to Durban in 1990 he was not expected to have a front rank career. He was a by-word for financial imprudence and lived off hand-outs from Schabir Shaik. As the 1994 election neared the ANC at Shell House became nervous at the likelihood that the violent and intransigent Harry Gwala would become the ANC leader in Natal, and so pushed Zuma in instead at the last moment. He got a job as a provincial minister for Tourism and Economic Development but he had no administrative skills and his department was a laughable mess. Nobody imagined for a moment that he might move up to the national cabinet. But then, when Mandela was preparing to step down, he insisted that Thabo Mbeki should have a Zulu as his Deputy-President and, much against Mbeki’s will, Zuma was forced upon him. Mbeki was determined to get rid of Zuma and began plotting his downfall almost right away. And so the whole saga began. 

As President, Zuma frequently said that the ANC was everything, that it was more important than the Constitution, that it would rule “until Jesus comes” and that life outside it was unthinkable. For, after all, it was entirely due to his membership of the ANC that he, a barely literate person, had risen to the heights. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ANC’s personnel all round the country and was shrewdly aware of their appetites and weaknesses. He soon put together what seemed an invincible system to keep himself at the top of the ANC. On the one hand he managed to push ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal up to unheard-of heights, making KZN by far the strongest voice at ANC conferences. He also used the presidency to become vastly rich and, with the help of the Guptas, put money in all the right pockets to maintain his ascendancy. And he built up his corrupt contacts into the Premier League so that, under the leadership of their autocratic premiers, the North West, Mpumalanga and Free State provinces would also vote solidly for him. He had thus made his position impregnable and decided to make his ex-wife, Nkosasana, the next President so that he could, working through her, remain permanently in power for the rest of his life. 

Cyril Ramaphosa spoiled all this by getting elected President in 2017. Zuma could hardly believe it. Under him ANC conferences had simply become a vast auction, with immense amounts of money changing hands. And he, Zuma, had been nothing if not generous in paying off all the delegates he needed to ensure Nkosasana’s victory. But Ramaphosa had won. The only way that that was possible, Zuma knew, was that Ramaphosa had paid them even more. And given that Zuma had had all the resources of the state to call upon, the only way that Ramaphosa had been able to out-bribe him was because he had collected vast sums in campaign funds from rich white capitalists.  In a word, from white monopoly capital. Hence Zuma’s undying grievance against Ramaphosa. In the wake of his defeat Zuma was the object of many court cases for corruption. These he blamed personally on Ramaphosa, increasing his animosity.

So Zuma decided to have his revenge at the 2024 election. He rounded up hefty Russian support – the MKP was flush with funds and had multiple helpers and expensive vehicles – and may even have received donations from the Guptas, who might fancy a further tour of duty in South Africa if Ramaphosa could be overthrown. Zuma’s calculation was probably that Ramaphosa would not survive a major election defeat and then, thanks to helping hands from Lindiwe Sisulu and the RET faction, Zuma’s party would re-unite with the ANC, leaving Zuma as the all-powerful godfather. Naturally, he interprets the GNU, including the DA, as Ramaphosa’s further betrayal to white monopoly capital. This interpretation is shared by the EFF, for any pretensions to Marxist ideology have now been shed in favour of a simple anti-white racism. (It is also why the GNU cannot afford to fail: a South Africa conquered by racial hatred would not be a pretty place.

However, Zuma was indeed a child of the ANC and was used to ANC structures always being there, helping to make things happen, pushing for his promotion, building his career. With the foundation of the MKP he had to do everything himself. And since he entirely lacks administrative or managerial skills, the result is a complete mess. Things began to go wrong even in mid-campaign when Zuma, always prone to sense plots and conspiracies, decided that several leading cadres, including the party’s founder, were actually traitors and purged them. He did this despite a complete lack of evidence. Their places were quickly taken by members of Zuma’s extended family – not just his children but the infamous Gcaba brothers, the most notorious taxi bosses in the province, together with sundry criminal elements from among the construction mafia. There was, however, no real structure, no chain of command: Zuma alone would decide everything. This is, effectively, the recreation of the kraal of a traditional Zulu chief masquerading as a modern political party. 

The MKP manifesto was a bizarre mix of Marxist rhetoric with Zulu feudalism, something which no other party could take seriously. No attempt was made to explain it and probably few of the MKP’s voters knew about it or understood it. Zuma has since attacked Roman-Dutch law, clearly not understanding that changing any country’s legal system is an almost impossible upheaval. Even the revolutionaries of the ANC, returning in triumph in 1990, never dreamed of changing that. It is also a subject completely devoid of popular appeal, causing some to wonder whether Zuma’s mind is wandering. 

Next came the pantomime of Zuma’s attempt to prevent the opening of parliament and the boycott of the session by MKP MPs. Zuma is very litigious these days – all these years of Stalingrad tactics have taught him to go to court on the slightest pretext. He is continuing – hopelessly – to demand a complete re-run of the election, apparently not realising that a succession of public defeats makes him look rather ridiculous. He continues to insist the election was rigged but says that his “evidence” for this must remain secret for now, an absurd and inevitably losing position.

Meanwhile there is still no hint of the MKP’s structure. How on earth will it function in parliament unless it has a parliamentary leader, a chief whip, shadow ministers and spokespersons ? Zuma is apparently the sole font of authority and policy but he will be sitting in far-away Nkandla. It looks very much as if he hasn’t thought this through at all. 

And now to the MKP’s exclusion from the GNU there has to be added its complete exclusion from the government of KwaZulu-Natal. The other parties there all tried to negotiate with the MKP but found it impossible. Different people from MKP kept calling them but no one seemed to have any authority to negotiate or even to know the identity of the others who had called up wanting to talk. Moreover the IFP made an appointment to meet and talk to the MKP but the MKP kept them waiting for four hours and never pitched up. Inevitably this chaotic situation caused the other parties to conclude that they had better put together an administration on their own, which they have now done. 

This is creating considerable discontent among MKP’s voters. They had taken pleasure in their party’s triumphant progress, taking almost half the provincial vote at its first attempt. They confidently expected MKP to form the new provincial government and were already gleefully anticipating how they would enjoy the resulting patronage. Now they learn that the MKP is out in the cold, has wasted its strong performance and that there is no patronage. Many of Zuma’s voters are now extremely disgruntled and claim that he has wasted their votes. It’s all a complete mess and it’s hard to see how Zuma can explain it away.

Hence the comparison with Shirley Williams. Zuma appears to have acted impulsively and, lacking the structure, discipline and guidance of the ANC he is beginning to look like a foolish old man way out of his depth. His children would clearly like to take the lead but they are completely without political experience. It is too soon to say how this is going to end but it might well produce a completely farcical denouement.

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