Press "Enter" to skip to content

How should we remember Zuma’s presidency?

History is a complex social construction but a few grand narratives tend to stick out.

Among other stories we’ll remember Mandela as the reconciliatory president, asking us to throw our “pangas into the sea” and forgive. We’ll remember Mbeki’s poetic appeal to our African identity, an aloof renaissance man and, bitter-sweet, as the statesman who chose dignified submission when fired.

Zuma, we had hoped in 2009, would be Mr Delivery. If Mandela oversaw the constitutional and conceptual framework for our democracy and if Mbeki ensured ministers put large projects into their portfolios, then Zuma had to be the president that finally listened and delivered. The time had come for grassroots materialisation of basic needs and services.

Zuma has disappointed.

His presidency is laced with scandal and eight opposition parties have moved a motion of no-confidence. This is no light matter, as DA parliamentary leader Mazibuko admits. Writing for the Sunday Times (Nov 19 2012) the chief architect of this motion conceded to having a “heavy heart” at the National Assembly, because despite differences of opinion, we all want (desperately need!) Zuma to succeed. This is our country, after all, and we are all the beneficiaries of functional politics and successful policies. The problem, it seems, is that our president fails to embody inspirational leadership and act decisively.

Listening to the Obama campaign for a second term as American president reminded me of the hope and optimism he managed to arouse among millions of young voters who would have otherwise rather watched a movie than go out and vote in an election. Again he managed to empathically engage his audiences and get them to believe “the best is yet to come”. Despite criticism for an underwhelming first term, Obama has a believability about him that makes you feel like he gets the big and small picture. I have never felt inspired or hopeful after listening to our president speak. He is mediocre at best; fake at worst.

Not long ago, in early September, Malema told Ndumiso Ngcobo in a radio interview that “we [the ANC] made a terrible mistake by electing President Zuma, which will never be repeated in the history of our existence … we were in a crisis so we elected him, but we moved from bad to worse”. Malema added: “Zuma has no original ideas of his own.” Had this been a year ago, it would have scandalised the ANCYL. But this low-blow will be written off as sour grapes from a disgruntled Malema in opportunistic attempt to discredit his former ally.

But this was echoed by Mazibuko who wrote that even if Zuma “had discovered one idea of his own” his practice of “extreme delegation” is flawed because his team does not deliver.

When Zuma chose his first Cabinet, adding new ministries and awkwardly renaming old ones, the diversity of faces and surprising talent-spotting softened our view that the populist is sure to fail. But history is quickly showing this to be window-dressing and the charge-sheet being read by the Mazibuko entourage is serious enough for us to really ask: “What good has Jacob Zuma done for us?”

Will he be remembered as the president that caricatured our democracy, who believed our democracy to be a piece of plasticine he could play with and reshape into any odd creation he so desired? When the rules of construction prevent him from playing, he simply allows the rules to be changed, lacking the adaptive courage to rethink his strategy and reconsider his approach. The Secrecy Bill, the proposed insult law to force empty respect and the Traditional Courts Bill that gives autocratic powers to traditional male leaders, are prime examples. Add Marikana, Nkandlagate, the Dalai Lama’s visa denial, a general dumbing down of official political communiqués and Zuma’s three short years already seem like one lifetime too long.

As Mangaung and 2014 approaches, time may be running out for a president whose grand narrative is being written quite unflatteringly. His track record is descending into a laugh-a-minute freak show. But as usual, the joke’s really on us.


  • Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has written extensively on a range of topics in various media. He is grappling with social dilemmas and paradoxes that we are faced with every day & hopes to trigger debate, controversy, reflection and connection via his writings. He is past chair of the Board of Directors of the Mandela Rhodes Community and is part of various national committees of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). Suntosh Pillay on ResearchGate To chat, network, or collaborate, email [email protected] Twitter: @suntoshpillay


  1. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 19 November 2012

    @Author – I share your views.

    I do not think Mr. Zuma is a good president for many reasons. From the start, there were question marks about his character and his integrity. Time has shown that he also lacks leadership and substance.

    I think he is similar to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, too interested in self gain and power, as well as the corruption and womanising stories that seem to hover around.

    I hope that he is replaced very soon. No confidence in parlament or ANC leadership vote, does not matter which.

    Is there anyone better to replace him? Only time will tell…

  2. The Creator The Creator 19 November 2012

    I’m hoping that he’ll be the first President to leave office in handcuffs.

  3. MattersMost MattersMost 19 November 2012

    It’s hard to believe that it’s been 3 years, it feels like 10 years – that’s how much damage he caused to this country. As for the next one in line I am not sure they are grooming any young lions to take over the leadership, I think it’s still going to take another 20 years to start seeing new faces in the ruling party. If he really cares about this country and where we are going he needs to step down, we need someone to come rescue us from this dilemma. There are just too many scandals surrounding him, and most of us are not confident that he will take us to greener pastures.

    I just hope that when we go to polls in 2014 the ANC have a better brain occupying that seat.

  4. Qobo Qobo 19 November 2012

    “Zuma, we had hoped in 2009, would be Mr Delivery”. I am not sure this is quite true – for many, Mbeki who was an effective manager and did well on the economy, was Mr Delivery. I think most people expected the Zuma presidency to be a bit of a Mafiorcracy, with a rather large focus on corruption and extraction of funds for rather dubious people. I think what people didn’t expect was quite how pervasive the corruption would be – and they also didn’t expect the gradual meltdown of the economy which has made it a hell of a lot worse.

  5. Belle Belle 19 November 2012

    JZ has been more like the court jester of our government than the strong, charismatic King he claimed he would be. I think it’s good that he has been given a vote of no confidence. He now officially sucks as a leader, and rightly so.

  6. Vijay Vijay 19 November 2012

    I’ve had alot of faith in an ANC lead government until Jacob Zuma came into office. It’s all a performance from his side: the singing, the dancing, the remixed songs of faith and hope, and for all these performances he takes home a handsome salary of more than R2620000 per annum. In comparison to American president Barack Obama, who leads with hope and inspiration, and leads a population greater than that of Zuma, he costs his people per head five times less than Zuma costs us (without the unnecessary singing or dancing). Zuma has a job to do, like every other income earning citizen in this country, and should therefore either excel at what he does or quit. He has done nothing memorable to ease the burdens of the masses engulfed in poverty and unemployment.. so no, I won’t be visiting him at his overpriced recently renovated estate.

  7. Perry Curling-Hope Perry Curling-Hope 19 November 2012

    Zuma, ‘we’ had hoped in 2009, would be Mr Delivery??

    Who’s ‘We’ ? …..speak for yourself.

    Anyone with half a functioning brain cell knew that this was going to be more like
    Mr Disaster, but to be fair, President Zuma is only one man within a larger machine which grinds inexorably forth by it’s own obdurate rules, namely the African National Congress.

    Regardless of whichever figurehead ‘leads’ a much more sinister ‘Rubicon’ was crossed at our last ‘election’, namely the last opportunity to halt the further entrenchment of the political elite by peaceful and democratic means.

    Now we too, have the all too familiar (and too young) ‘War Veterans’ invading gatherings and threatening to kill people if they do not render support for prescribed ‘nominees’.

    It has already gone too far….Aluta Continua

  8. Frans Verloop Frans Verloop 20 November 2012

    How he should be rememberd? Not at all, the sooner we can forget about him the better.

  9. Zeph Zeph 20 November 2012

    Maybe what Zuma will be remembered for is that he taught the population not to trust politicians and to demand more accountability – but I am being hopeful.

  10. Mack Nyati Mack Nyati 20 November 2012

    I do wonder wether any of the Presidency staff ever read these opinion pages, and relay the messages to the President for him to think about…?

    Or maybe they do read it; then deliberately and scornfully discard it with malicious intent…?

  11. Mack Nyati Mack Nyati 20 November 2012

    @ Zeph – Absolutely right!

    But the bigger question is… does the present political structure, viz. (lack of) constituency representation in the national and provincial parliaments, as well as at municipal ward level; party nomination lists, etc., etc., allow us, as voters, any chance of ‘demanding more accountability’?

    Even the motion by the opposition parties to schedule the debate/discussion of the vote-of-no-confidence against the President is being sneered at as ‘not urgent’ by all allies of the President. What recourse do we actually have, as citizens in a so-called democratic dispensation, to have our say heard by the government that is supposed to serve us… except, of course, to topple it violently…?

  12. suntosh suntosh 20 November 2012

    @Mr. Direct: self-gain & power seems to be a prerequisite for aspiring presidents.

    @The Creator: he was well protected when he was not president, never having “his day in court”, so leaving office in handcuffs is unlikely.

    @MattersMost: “a better brain occupying the seat” is what I hope for too. Foresight & ethics is what’s missing in our current crop of “leaders”.

    @Qobo & Perry: perhaps Zuma’s perception as a good listener gave us (the voters) the impression he would be “Mr Delivery”. In retrospect, it was all electioneering.

    @Belle: It’s sad that many struggle heroes have allowed themselves to descend into court jesters.

    @Vijay: interesting stats & I totally agree. (and even if you wanted to visit his overpriced estate, the cops might just make you turn around!).

    @Frans: Forgetting can be equally dangerous if we don’t learn from past mistakes.

    @Zeph: a silver lining I suppose!

  13. Tofolux Tofolux 20 November 2012

    @Pillay, what this era will prove is that certain sections of our society has shown the utmost disrespect for our constitution and processes, majoritarianism, the rule of law, our courts and its processes, the Public Protector’s office, Chapter nine institution, our Parliament etc. What has become more obvious is the overt expression of racist attitudes and displays. This era has exposed the fourth estate’s bias, alarming unobjective campaigns and state or lack of journalistic integrity. We have seen an unprecedented hiding behind ”unnamed sources”. Not only has the right to dignity, privacy and truth been trampled on, we have seen unwarranted attacks and insults on individuals in the name of ”freedom of expression”. The line between acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour has been crossed. Not only have we seen all and sundry claiming struggle credentials we have seen these very individuals using this as a licence to tread on the rights of others. But the lack of respect for customs, cultures and traditions must surely be premised on the lack of respect towards more than 80% of this country’s population.

  14. Percipient Percipient 20 November 2012

    A useless president, of a useless ANC, all paid for at the behest of stupid and cowardly South African taxpayers.

  15. Zeph Zeph 20 November 2012

    @Mack Nyati – I am afraid accountability will only come with a stronger opposition where there can be a balance of power. And we are a long way from that…
    Wherever I look I see politicians and rot…everywhere! It makes me want to run for the hills…

  16. Zeph Zeph 20 November 2012

    @suntosh – yeah, imagine that! We end up thanking him. Oh, the irony…

  17. Charlotte Charlotte 20 November 2012

    @ Suntosh Pillay. Great article. Important points made and to the point.
    Just a thought: Apart from saying ‘Zuma has disappointed’ (which is putting it mildly), you end with “His track record is descending into a laugh-a-minute freak show. But as usual, the joke’s really on us.” “
    It is a ‘freak show’ alright – except that there is nothing left to laugh at. His lack of leadership, ineptitude, self-enrichment and grandiosement, has been to the detriment of the whole country and, as we can see, certainly taken its toll. The country is in turmoil.
    The ANC must take full responsibility for appointing Zuma into the position of President in the first place, and then allowing him to continue to hold it. He should have been booted out ages ago.

  18. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 21 November 2012


    For a change, I agree with at least a part of one of your posts:

    “what this era will prove is that certain sections of our society has shown the utmost disrespect for our constitution and processes, majoritarianism, the rule of law, our courts and its processes, the Public Protector’s office, Chapter nine institution, our Parliament etc. What has become more obvious is the overt expression of racist attitudes and displays.”

    But I am sure we are talking about different sections of our society…

    With court orders being ignored, restricting freedom of the press, restricting freedom of speech, ignoring the appeals of minorities, failing to debate anything of substance in parliment. Surely the actions of Zuma and his “cadres” could be easily translated to your statement above…

  19. javaringo javaringo 21 November 2012

    It is the collective leadership of the ANC that keeps on failling the masses of this country. The current leadership knew what they wanted from Zuma, to use him to bolster thier political position and qiuckly enrich themselves, before the true cadres take thier rightful position and provide pure and selfless leadership.

  20. Jens Bierbrauer Jens Bierbrauer 21 November 2012

    Tofolux, opinions contrary to yours are not, de facto, racist. Neither are they necessarily biased.

    I’m an old UDF supporter. I never was a direct supporter of the ANC except for my vote in ’94. Can you see how that is possible. Please try not to be paranoid when there is honest, patriotic criticism going on.

  21. suntosh suntosh 21 November 2012

    @tofolux: I agree that “The line between acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour has been crossed”. Except, who’s crossed it? And who are you/we blaming?

  22. Tofolux Tofolux 21 November 2012

    @Jens, are you saying that being an ”old udf supporter” (whatever does that mean) gives you a licence to judge and arbitrate “patriotic honesty”?

  23. Jens Bierbrauer Jens Bierbrauer 21 November 2012


    “are you saying that being an ”old udf supporter” (whatever does that mean) gives you a licence to judge and arbitrate “patriotic honesty”?

    No. I am saying that you don’t have that right.

  24. Marie Marie 21 November 2012

    The sooner we can forget the mampara, the better.

  25. Tofolux Tofolux 22 November 2012

    @suntosh, there are certain norms and standards which we all subscribe to. If one travels across the world, you will find that on some level we ALL share the same values ie respect, tolerance, dignity etc and here I deliberately refrain from using the word ethic. The moment we think that drawing persons engaging in an act of gang-rape, the moment we draw or paint elders with their private parts exposed, the moment we disrespect the highest office in the land with sheer frivolity and let me point out that I am not relying on media in this regard, the moment we accuse persons without substantive proof (eg the Deputy President) the moment we call ANY CITIZEN of this country a ”refugee”, the moment we tweet incorrect information seeking to create racial conflict. eg, that is clearly crossing the line. Hence it is my conclusion that there are certain ”learned” persons who have no idea what the meaning of democracy is. Not only do they not understand the nature of democracy, they fail to recognise one basic right and that is the right to dignity and TRUTH. We as citizens deserve the truth however unpalatable it might be. To manipulate information, to spin the news, to misinform us is crossing the line. If you expect me to be honest, then I expect the same from you.

  26. The Creator The Creator 22 November 2012

    Tofolux, I suppose that being an old UDF supporter means that you supported the UDF in the old days. That is, that you were an anti-apartheid activist actually under apartheid. That should give someone a certain credibility to make judgement calls.

    By the way, what is “patriotic honesty”? I would have said that patriots were, by definition, honest. If you’re dishonest, how can you be patriotic? Zuma, for instance, is unpatriotic.

  27. ConCision ConCision 22 November 2012

    Nero fiddled whie Rome burned.
    And Zuma fiddles while tyres, cars, shops, mines, schools, libraries, police-vans, farms, vineyards and administrative offices burn.

  28. DeeGee DeeGee 22 November 2012

    @ Tofolux. You’re funny. I like you. You bring humour to my day.

    By the way, your lines “We as citizens deserve the truth however unpalatable it might be. To manipulate information, to spin the news, to misinform us is crossing the line.” are very true. It’s how pretty much everyone feels at this point about Nkandla. Let’s hope you and your ilk (!!) respect this and finally come clean….

  29. LittleBobPete LittleBobPete 22 November 2012

    @tofelux…’re everywhere…….you can’t have a job……..

    I’ll tell you what gives you the right to judge……if you’re a tax payer, if you’re a South African citizen (irrespective of colour)……you can judge, criticize at will.

    respect is earned, not demanded, the Preseidency has failed to earn our respect. The president has failed to earn our respect.
    Remember the masses didn’t vote for Zoomer, a few in the ANC voted for him…….the masses voted for the ANC…….expecting them to select their best candidate…..and if he is the best……..we’re in trouble!

  30. Tofolux Tofolux 22 November 2012

    @Creator, the question is directed at jens and I am awaiting his reply. Your reply/ response is incorrect.

  31. Tofolux Tofolux 22 November 2012

    @DeeGee, you can laugh all you want but please note, those who laugh last, laughs the best.

  32. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 22 November 2012

    How should we remember Zuma’s presidency? We should remember it in much the same way as our parents remembered the 2nd world war – dark days that we should do everything in our power to prevent them recurring. Just how we should all remember Apartheids days. Tofolux is one good example of a loyal and very patriotic ANC member, but being patriotic to a party doesn’t necessarily translate into patriotism to the country, as many former NAT supporters painfully learned and many ANC supporters are still to learn. The percentages and numbers are mere statistics to some, but they are real numbers nevertheless, and I would argue that the ANC have done woefully way too little to reduce the number of people suffering in this country. Yes, they inherited the mess from the NATs and the complicit homeland homeland leaders but they were still mandated with changing the situation. surely that should have received way more attention than the self-enriching that has enjoyed so many years in the limelight, especially so in the last 3 years.

  33. DeeGee DeeGee 23 November 2012

    @Tofolux. And it appears I’m laughing last. Thanks for that!

  34. Blogroidian Zumamaniac Blogroidian Zumamaniac 23 November 2012

    When it comes to our President… We ‘the people’ elected him, knowing who he was and what his proclivities turned out to be. He is a traditionalist, descended from arguably the most violent and vainglorious, and generally coolest of all the rampaging ethnik kollektives in our accumulated nation of forceful minorities… He has never pretended to be an intellectual, and has no fear of being seen publicly cavorting around in a leopard skin and sporty paunch, boozing heartily from an urgent gourd.

    I also have no doubt that Mr Z will be our Pres’ for the next five years. Will that be good for us… Who knows… Right now the entire planet is on a financially catastrophic knife’s edge and since the Party has not seen fit to suggest a viable alternative to the man i would suggest that there is no one better. NO ONE.

    He obviously represents in every respect what this country needs to have at this time, someone who fully understands that the presures of daily life should never stand in the way of a quick sh-g. Being close to 70 myself i have the utmost admiration for a man who is still up for a quick sh-g notwithstanding how many times its been had. This is genuine prioritising and lest we forget: this heroic victor in the liberation struggle had to sacrifice much sh-gging in the interests of the struggle… Thabo the Great [as i call him] had his favourite tipple and JZ his favourite tumble… i say Go for it dude You deserve it and we deserve you. TBC

  35. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 24 November 2012

    As Qobo points out quite rightly above, it was Thabo Mbeki who was billed as Mr Delivery. Did he deliver? Did he pass on a united nation at ease with itself? A reputation for insisting on probity and accountability from his ministers and civil servants? A stronger moral foundation, following Nelson Mandela, on which Jacob Zuma could build? Or or all the clues needed to hang on to power and be self-serving given the chance?

    Whatever the answers, remember neither president appointed himself. The ANC did.

  36. jandr0 jandr0 24 November 2012

    Well, according to the latest information from M&G, we will probably mostly remember Jacob Zuma as the person that apparently lied to the whole country.

    Of course, that will also mean we will remember people like Tofolux as people who prefers being lied to and and enjoy it when building Nkandla gets ministerial level attention while poor children do not get textbooks (and only get ministerial-level attention when practically the whole country starts decrying the lack of delivery).

    It is clear from their ACTIONS where the ANC’s real priorities lie. Their WORDS and PROMISES are clearly only an attempt to fool us.

    ACTIONS speak louder than WORDS. If you’re still being fooled by the WORDS, then you are incredibly naive.

    I have voted for quite a number of political parties in my life – but thankfully never for the ANC or the National Party. Mostly because I voted with my mind, and therefore was able to see through to their underlying divisive, non-democratic, freedom-destroying tendencies.

  37. Peter L Peter L 24 November 2012

    Politicians the world over are self-serving scum that deserve all the lampooing they get.

    Critically assessing their actions and apparent motives, and pointing out what appears to be poor judgement and impropriety is the hall, mark of democratic institutions.
    You will find Politicians treated with zero respect in all functioning modern democracies.

    Countries that have laws against “insulting” the President include Syria, Zimbabwe and Iran.
    Is that the sort of democracy you want?

    As for granting automatic respect for culture, customes and tradition, I am of Scandinavian stock (very tall, well built and blond – you might like me if you met me!) with Viking ancestry.

    According to some of the literature and folklore, my Viking customs, culture and traditions include rape, pillage and plunder.

    Do you respect that?

  38. Tofolux Tofolux 26 November 2012

    @Peter L, if you are of ”scandinavian stock” are you suggesting as a scandinavian that Olaf Palme was a ”self-serving scum”? wow! In fact, are you also suggesting that Nelson Mandela was a ”self-serving scum?
    I think YOUR self-serving arrogance is embarrasing also because some of your Scandinavian politicians are regarded as the most ”skilled” across the world. In fact, noting this arrogance, have you reminded yourself that most Scandinavian countries have social democracies. Guess if you knew that, I guess your foolish self-portrayal would have borrowed something else.

  39. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 28 November 2012

    Public figures should understand their place, and no more so than politicians who are there by the grace of the populace whom they should be SERVING. The ones who are self-serving are scum and the populace have the right to say so.

    Notice how neatly the Tofoluxes sidesteps any comment or question that highlights the hypocracy of the ANC. Done in true ANC fashion but with very little style. How any ANC supporter can not be disgusted with the lies around the Arms deal through to the lies around Nkandla and all of the lies inbetween, and the fact that the president has been proven to be lying (spot the trend here) is beyond most morally grounded people, but somehow the majority of this country have no problem with this, which implies that the majority of this country have a poor moral grounding which makes it difficult for them to differentiate between right and wrong. There’s evidence this is the case!

    I’m sure there are moral, ethical people within the ANC – if only they had the courage of their comvictions, but that requires courage and there seem to be very few with the courage of a Desmond Tutu left in the ANC. Cowards, afraid of the thugs in suits who prefer to rule than govern, to self-serve instead of serve, to take instead of create, to copy instead of invent and innovate, to react instead of proact – yes, they have allowed superficial simplistic thinkers the freedom to demonstrate their poor thinking ability to the entire world – cringe again!

  40. Akashmaneshsurve Akashmaneshsurve 18 December 2012

    MduKhosi is the biggest Mbeki suteprpor on this site. And it doesn’t matter who it was speaking or what the reasons were, it is our tax money paying for a hastily assembled program with political motives. If it was Lekota, Mbeki or anyone else, it would have still made it an abuse.What would you have said, if it was Lekota who got an hour live interview on prime time television, paid for by your tax money? There would be something wrong with it, but not because it is your political opponent.

  41. siphiwe siphiwe 13 April 2013

    The ANC has done its best in appointing male leaders including the likes of Mr Mbheki and Zuma amongst others, personally i think now is the time for a switch in our presidency just to give women a chance to lead and to see whether their are better able to deliver since our two previous presidents failled. i am quite confident about mrs Nkosazana Dlamini zuma, shes doing very well as an embassader for South Africa and i think thats the kind of president (leader) we need. One who knows the reason why he/shes been appointed, who understands that his/her task is to serve the country and its citizens as well as not to use his power and access to funds for his personal gain (the case of Zuma and Malema).

Leave a Reply