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Lost for words to describe Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma

It is something that is always at the back of the minds of leaders: the question of how they will be remembered by subsequent generations.

In the deferential East, the Chinese will happily bob and scrape to such obvious fibs as The Great Helmsman to describe mass murderer Mao Zedong, while North Korea hails Kim Jong-il as Dear Leader. We South Africans, too, have our ingratiating titles, although our robust politics fortunately mean that they don’t wear well.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela briefly preened as Mother of the Nation. But her later conviction for involvement in the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei – she was acquitted of culpability in his murder – ensured that this accolade is now never accorded her, except sardonically.

While all politicians see themselves as cut from the same cloth as, say, a Thomas Jefferson (the Sage of Monticello) or a Jan Smuts (Slim Jannie, Afrikaans for Clever Jannie), history can be cruel. The stinging nicknames put into play by political opponents sometimes resonate strongly enough with the wider public to dog their owners forever.

Richard Milhous Nixon never intended to be written into the books as Tricky Dick, a moniker that originated from his campaigning shenanigans in the 1950s but was cemented by the 1970s dirty tricks campaign that culminated in the Watergate scandal and his resignation as president. Nor, too, would a certain William Jefferson Clinton be pleased with the tag Slick Willie, the result of his verbal slipperiness in the face of damning evidence of his dalliance with an intern.

The Brits are wonderfully irreverent at this game. After news broke of his long and secret affair with his secretary, Britain’s Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown was immortalised as Paddy Pantsdown. Uninspiring former Tory prime minister John Major was immediately The Grey Man, while present-day counterpart David Cameron is Flashman, after the cad and public school bully in the Victorian era novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. And the alias foisted upon Labour shadow deputy prime minister Harriet Harman, reflecting her feminist politics, is Harriet Harperson.

Just occasionally, a cracker of a nickname backfires. Maggie Thatcher was dubbed the Iron Lady by a Soviet journalist who was appalled by her uncompromising politics, but Thatcher was delighted by the description and what was intended as a slur became a badge of pride. Similarly, one suspects, the pugnacious Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, who has become known as Godzille.

One wonders what appellation President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma will one day find his presidential reputation shackled to? Gedleyihlekisa translates from Zulu as the ‘one who smiles while grinding his enemies’ – in other words, the backstabber. Not a bad choice by his mama, given his avuncular mien and the fact that he has gone through 47 ministerial and 54 deputy ministerial changes, as well as 177 different directors general in either permanent or acting capacities, according to the count of Business Day columnist Charles van Onselen.

With Zuma, the initial omens for a flattering description were good. His moniker might easily have been that of Great Conciliator, for his skill in the mid-1990s in mediating a peace between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in an internecine conflict that had claimed thousands of lives. He had similar success on the international stage, in negotiating peace in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the past years as incumbent of the nation’s highest political offices – five years as deputy president and going on six years as president – have not been kind to his reputation. Number One, as his flunkeys call him, may soon find that his number’s up.

Characteristic of the Zuma years has been the use of procrastination as a political tactic. There are the boards of inquiry that drag on endlessly; the criminal investigations that are never finalised; the public protector letters that go unanswered; the public interest documents that are never released; the parliamentary questions that are never answered; the court actions that are prolonged; and the Bills that languish unsigned.

Then there are the president’s abilities as a political escapologist. Whether or not his evasiveness stretches to him being the barefaced liar some of his critics have labelled him publicly, he is undoubtedly adept at using misdirection and equivocation to slip legal knots and slide away from taking personal responsibility.

So if history is gentle, he might be remembered as the Great Procrastinator. Maybe the Great Prevaricator.

Or, given that Zuma has used both procrastination and prevarication as tactics to cling to public office, the Great Survivor would also suit. The next four-and-a-half years will tell. Let the nation speak.

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