It is hard to see now, with all the corruption scandals and a third no-confidence vote just recently behind him, how South Africans could ever have rallied around President Jacob Zuma, but at a time they did.
They moved from the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, an international master’s degree in economics and development who possessed an impressive record as an activist and was rather well-spoken, to the leadership of President Jacob Zuma who although was a hugely popular political figure was relatively inexperienced.
It is an easy comparison to what is currently happening in the United States as President Barack Obama gets ready to hand-off to President-elect Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s victory had been widely unexpected considering his lack of political experience, but apparently his massive popularity (a popularity that was sometimes fed by negative issues) was able to carry him across the finish line.
Jacob Zuma was the antithesis of Mbeki much like Donald Trump is the antithesis of Obama. While Thabo Mbeki was President, South Africa actually saw a period of economic growth and the world began to see the country as a great picture of human rights and progressive plans in Africa. Thabo Mbeki had, however, been viewed as a removed President; one who did not care much about the people’s needs.
Thabo Mbeki resigned in 2008 after the ANC announced that it would remove him from office before the end of his term. South Africa’s ruling party had then replaced him with Jacob Zuma.
Jacob Zuma, who only had a 6th grade-level education, was tried and acquitted for rape, was a polygamist who still had scandals with other women and faced 783 corruption and racketeering charges. All this was offset by the fact that Jacob Zuma was seen as a man of the people.
This strain of populism, the belief that a man is willing to fight for the regular people, despite all the things counting against him, is reminiscent of what has happened with Donald Trump in America. Trump promised to make America great again and the people prized that above the facts that he has no political experience, was accused of sexual assault by numerous women, evaded taxes and made several outlandish statements in the course of the election cycle.
South Africans have been where America is right now. They have chosen a man of the people, a man who controversy only seemed to make stronger. Jacob Zuma shocked the liberal elite of SA when despite his crudeness the people chose him just so their views were represented. The New York Times wrote in 2009 of President Jacob Zuma;
“Curiously, the spectacle of the corruption and sex allegations proved a boon to Mr. Zuma’s political career.”
The people just did not care. People were unhappy with the political establishment in SA and unemployment and immigration were on the rise. They chose a man they believed would fight for them and even re-elected him in 2012 for a second five-year term.
Of course, President Jacob Zuma has failed those same people spectacularly now and they have turned their frustration and anger on him demanding for his resignation but that is not to say that Trump will fail Americans like Zuma obviously has failed SA.
President Jacob Zuma is perhaps just a reminder that Trump’s victory is not all that novel and that Americans must get ready to demand that a President Donald Trump would stay true to course.