Big fat liar leaders; Zuma and Trump, and now Boris?

As a journalist I have interviewed many politicians and they are all skilful in spinning their story no matter what you ask; to try to nail down an honest, straight-forward answer is like grabbing a very slippery eel. US Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney once told a journalist, “You get to ask the questions you like. I get to give the answers I like.” Since the election of Donald Trump as US President, a new populist, demagogue of a politician has risen who not only evades questions, but lies, stirs up emotions on immigration, calls all news fake, have sexual exploits and is outraged when he is caught out, but inexplicably his supporters love it and don’t seem to care that he is openly dishonest. As Trump told ABC in an interview, it’s okay for me to lie because people agree with me. Here at home, Jacob Zuma has employed similar tactics, which kept him in power, decimated the party of Nelson Mandela and allowed grand scale theft under his watch. That is until December 2017 when the ANC finally came to its senses and voted him out. At the Zondo Commission, Zuma displayed the same sense of paranoia and obfuscation painting himself as the victim, not unlike any leader who has been put in the dock of the International Criminal Court. The difference between Trump and Zuma is that JZ’s number is up and as it is pointed out in this article from the Conversation, his “Stalingrad” defence at the Zondo Commission may be risky. In another article from the Conversation, there is a warning that the similar paranoid, narcissistic behaviour of these demagogues are becoming the new normal in the world. With Boris Johnson, who is also known for twisting the truth and outrageous comments set to become Britain’s new leader, the question is; will he follow in their footstep? – Linda van Tilburg

Zuma and Trump: half a world apart, yet similarly paranoid and dangerous

By Roger Southall*

Within the space of a few days, we have been subjected to bizarre but carefully staged performances by US President Donald Trump and former South African President Jacob Zuma.

Trump has spewed racist hate-speech against four Democratic Party Congress women of colour, telling them to “go back home” to their “broken” and “crime infested” countries of origin. Zuma, appearing before the Zondo Commission probing allegations of grand corruption during his tenure, has played the victim of a 30-year conspiracy. He has sought to “out” former ministers of his cabinet as spies of the apartheid regime.

Both Trump and Zuma will disown any intent to foment violence, verbal or physical, against those they pillory. But, they know that their words constitute a dangerous incitement. They may be half a world apart in ideology, yet Trump and Zuma inhabit a similar world of conspiracy, lies, threats and paranoia.

Their world seeks – and to an alarming extent succeeds – in providing explanations of their misfortunes to the socially insecure and economically vulnerable.

The outsider and the conspiracist

By common consent, Trump’s assault on the four Congress women is an early salvo of his campaign for reelection as president in 2020. He is making it plain that he will use much the same formula as in 2016.

He will run as the outsider against established elites, claiming to voice the concerns of the little man, but simultaneously positioning himself as an insider, a white male citizen, who promises to reclaim the US from the clutches of unwanted, unchristian and unpatriotic immigrants to restore the country to unsullied whiteness. Those against him he will denounce as unAmerican, as enemies of the people, and as the vanguards of foreignness and of hostile ideologies. Those against him will be criminalised.

Read also: The spy who loved us – Zuma’s tale

Zuma’s fate is what Trump fears – being removed from the presidency. Zuma’s explanation for what has happened to him is to blame an opaque, near shadowy campaign against him. He alleges a plot by intelligence agencies of foreign powers and the former apartheid regime to remove him from any position of influence within a democratic South Africa.

To his mind, this explains his displacement as head of intelligence for the African National Congress (ANC), which now runs the country. It also explains his removal as deputy president by Thabo Mbeki in 2005 , on what he regards as specious allegations of corruption.

Despite the best attempts of these hostile forces, he eventually rose to be President – only to be eventually forced out by his enemies in February 2018 – before the end of his term – as a result of trumped up charges of corruption.

A world without morality

Both Trump and Zuma inhabit a world devoid of morality. It is a world which subordinates any sense of right and wrong to their political survival. Both identify what is right with their persons; both identify themselves not just with, but as the very embodiment, of their parties.

Trump has vanquished the old guard in the Republican Party, and has twisted its conservative, neo-liberal ideology into a neo-fascist populism which other Republican politicians repudiate at their peril. Republicans in Congress have reduced themselves to fawning acolytes, desperate to retain the favour of Trump’s popular base.

In his pomp as President, Zuma acted likewise. The ANC in parliament and the country acting in craven subordination to his will, the liberation movement glued together by the material interest of his cronies and their patronage. Now out of power, he continues to identify himself as the “real” ANC, and those who ejected him from the presidency as counter-revolutionaries.

Both Trump and Zuma depict their opponents as enemies. Former US President Barack Obama was depicted as a “foreign Muslim” , foisted on the American people by unAmerican forces. Former South African ministers Ngoako Ramotlhodi and Simphiwe Nyanda, who have implicated Zuma in state capture, are denounced as apartheid spies.

Narcissistic and paranoid

Trump’s racist taunts are deliberately calculated to fire up his base. Zuma’s allegations of spies and conspiracy are equally deliberately calculated to raise the political costs of prosecuting him by convincing his supporters that they too are victims of injustice and falsehood.

The campaign of both comes at cost to the constitution, the rule of law and – let’s not forget it – common decency.

Trump has embarked on his own campaign of “state capture”, his most famous prize having been his appointment of two right-wing appointees to the Supreme Court. This, backed up by systematic appointment of conservatives to judges to lower courts, all to appease the white Christian right and to roll back civil rights for blacks, Latinos, the LGBT community and others for a generation to come.

Zuma’s campaign of “state capture”, structured around the interests of his friends, the Gupta family and other shady mafia-style bosses, is now being steadily undermined by the Zondo Commission and other investigatory commissions, yet came at massive cost to the economy, ordinary people and continues to fire destabilising political factional struggles within the ANC.

Trump and Zuma are both narcissistic and paranoid leaders, for whom the world of politics revolves around self.

Interestingly too, the politics of both is driven by the need to stay out of jail. Trump could face impeachment and prosecution for financial, tax and fraud offences once he is out of office. Zuma’s need is more immediate, and his present bluster and his threat to unmask yet more spies within the ranks of the ANC is designed to dissuade further criminal charges being laid against him.

But, the most frightening thing is how, from prime ministers Narendra Modi in India, through to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Viktor Mihály Orbán in Hungary, the behaviour of both Trump and Zuma is becoming the new normal. And now Boris Johnson is waiting in the wings.The Conversation


Zuma plays cat and mouse with corruption inquiry: it may be a high-risk strategy

By Richard Calland*

South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma threatened on Friday to walk away from a judicial commission of inquiry into corruption, throwing the process into temporary confusion and uncertainty.

An agreement was later cobbled together that will maintain Zuma’s participation in the process. But it may be a short-lived truce as he is likely to continue to use the threat of a walk-out as leverage over how his evidence and its truthfulness are tested.

For those that have attentively followed the former President’s legal and political strategy over the past two decades – referred to in some quarters as his “Stalingrad” strategy – this will have come as no great surprise.

Over the past months, the commission headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, has heard chapter and verse about the systematic abuse of public and private power that wreaked havoc with numerous key state institutions in the country. These included the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Revenue Service as well as several state-owned entities vital for development and public service delivery, such as power utility Eskom.

According to numerous witnesses Zuma was the central protagonist. Several large files of witness statements were presented to his legal team in the run up to Zuma’s extraordinary appearance before the commission this week. They contain myriad accusations against him.

The responsibility of a commission of inquiry is to uncover the truth. Hence it has a duty – as Justice Zondo made absolutely clear to Zuma as he began his testimony – to make findings on all material matters. This is the case even though the commission is not a court of law and cannot hold any individual civilly or criminally liable.

Herein lies the dilemma and the risk for Zuma. He will have been advised that in the absence of counter-evidence, preferably from himself, the grave danger is that the commission will prefer the evidence of others and so make adverse findings against him.

That is probably why he was advised to appear before the commission. And why, having walked out, he returned.

But the strategic and tactical dilemma for Zuma and his legal team is this: by putting him on the witness stand, there is a risk that he would be found wanting, especially in terms of the details of any matter.

As every lawyer learns sooner or later in their career, the devil really is in the detail: the more detail you get into, the more likely that any discrepancy in the evidence is likely to emerge. And, in turn, the more likely that a dishonest witness will be exposed.

Hence, Zuma’s lawyers were very anxious to protect him from any scrutiny and, therefore, from any detailed questioning of his version of events.

This is why the quarrel between the legal teams – Zuma’s on the one hand, and the commission’s, on the other – ended up being about the pivotal issue of “cross-examination”.

Unpacking the process

Laymen watching events unfold this week may well have been greatly puzzled by this dispute. They could be forgiven for thinking that given that the whole point of a commission of inquiry is to find the truth this would, by definition, entail asking questions, difficult ones if needed.

My colleague Professor Pierre de Vos explained – with his customary thoroughness – the process as thus: the rules of the commission permit “examination” of any witness, including to “examine” the witness to try and establish whether he or she is being truthful.

Helpful as this legal analysis is, those of us who have practised at the Bar will know that in an adversarial court proceeding the distinction between “examination in chief” and “cross examination” is very clear. One side to the proceedings will lead evidence “in chief”. And then the other side (or sides) will cross examine the witness in order to limit the damage being done to their client’s interests. Or to undermine the credibility or veracity of it.

Jacob Zuma, Zondo Commission
Standoff (Jacob Zuma). More of Zapiro’s brilliant work available at www.zapiro.com.

Often, in this context when a witness is being forthcoming, the need to test the plausibility of evidence may be reduced. But when a key witness, such as Zuma, comes to the stand and time and again, as he did this week, says he cannot remember the detail – or otherwise deflects or obfuscates – then the need to probe deeper and ask more difficult questions is likely to be greater.But in an inquisitorial proceeding, such as the Zondo Commission, the distinction is rather less clear and far more subtle. This is because there are no competing parties. Instead, what you have is a commission armed with a legal team whose job it is to assist it in making findings of fact by adducing relevant evidence.

Zuma’s team protested that when Counsel for the Inquiry, Paul Pretorius SC, started to do so, he was “cross-examining” the witness and that this was “unfair”. Putting aside the semantics of whether it was “cross examination” as opposed to “mere examination” for a moment, it is difficult to understand the point from a legal perspective. But it’s easy to understand it from a political perspective.

All about survival

Legally, it would have been inappropriate if Zuma had been treated as a hostile witness from the beginning, as is often the case in an adversarial court proceeding.

So, when Zuma was able to give detailed accounts of events in the 1970s, as a part of his bizarre story of intrigue that was clearly designed to create a counter-narrative in which he is the victim of a devious and dangerous international crusade to eliminate him, rather than the perpetrator of state capture, but is unable to recall details of conversations from a few years ago when he was president, real cross-examination would be to put a question like this to the witness:

Mr Zuma, can you really expect the commission to believe that you can remember details from 40 years ago but not from seven years ago? That’s not credible is it? You’re not being frank or honest with the commission, are you?

However, somewhere along the spectrum of possible types of questioning, there is a middle ground in which the witness’ account could and should be tested by tougher questions. Otherwise, how else is Zondo to assess the evidence before him and make findings, especially if there are competing versions?

The game’s not yet over

Zuma and his legal team may think they have played a smart hand. Having volunteered to give evidence, having presented an alternative narrative that deflects from the core subject of state capture, and having avoided detailed questioning on the sort of detail that may have tripped their client up, they then walked away only to return within a few hours.

Had Zuma not returned, the risk would have been that in the absence of detailed evidence from him to set alongside that of the witnesses who gave evidence against him, Zondo may have no choice but to make damaging findings that are severely adverse to a former head of state whose legal and political options appear to be narrowing by the day.