“… At the heart of it, this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society.
Former president Zuma is a traditionalist, totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism, thrust into the role of president – whose primary duty is to serve and defend the Constitution. A total misalignment.
He often said, including to me, that the concept of corruption was a “western thing” – and from his vantage point, I eventually understood what he meant. Whenever I went campaigning in a traditional area of South Africa, under the control of a chief, I was first obliged to go and seek permission from the chief, and usually bring a gift to seek his favour. I always felt terribly uncomfortable doing so. After, all I did not have to ask anyone’s permission to exercise a constitutional right anywhere in South Africa, let alone bring a gift to exchange for that “permission”. But I was told every time that I had to do so, in order for the people to feel free to come to our meetings and listen to our message, and so I did.
The idea that people are born with inalienable rights that no one can take away from them, and that elected leaders are there to protect and defend these rights, is indeed a “western thing”. In traditional societies, the notion that the chief grants you favours if you seek his favour, is far more prevalent – and it is easy to see how this easily morphs into “corruption”. The leader looks after his own, making the idea of “nepotism” a very “western thing” as well.
Jacob Zuma didn’t understand all this, and said so openly.
I will never forget him wondering out loud, at an extended Cabinet meeting, how it was possible that judges could tell him what to do.
“I was elected,” he said. “The judges weren’t. How come they are in a position to tell me what to do?”
This genuinely puzzled him, and he was not afraid to say so. It should have been predictable that he would end up in jail for contempt of court, even before his multiple acts of corruption caught up with him.
At the height of the Nkandla scandal, when we could get no answers out of Parliament on this crucial matter of public interest, the DA decided to walk to Nkandla to see for ourselves. En route, hundreds of people poured out of their poverty-stricken homes and shacks to block our way, because they were protecting “their president”.
The irony struck me deeply: Zuma had unlawfully used tens of millions of public money to upgrade his luxurious homestead, set amidst grinding poverty, yet the people there came out to defend their “chief” instead of demanding accountability from him. He was their president. He was entitled to use public resources, and receive gifts in return for favours.
Perhaps more than at any other time, I saw the misalignment between the inherent assumptions of a constitutional democracy and traditional African cultures, which are more aligned to feudalism than the accountability that we demand from our leaders.
The story of Jacob Zuma is one of the personal tragedies that arises from our attempt to take a shortcut through history – which is what we are trying to do in South Africa. The events of this week were a victory for constitutionalism and the rule of law – and in that sense, a huge step forward for South Africa. The enormity of these developments need to be recognised for what they are in our context.
But back to the person who is Jacob Zuma. He achieved the pinnacle of power in a constitutional democracy, and used it like a tribal paramount chief – ending up in jail as a consequence.
If I had his phone number now (and if I knew he has a phone in his cell), I would reach out to him too, and wish him strength and courage, as he did to me at my lowest ebb. Not because I think he has been wronged. He was accorded due process of law and must serve his sentence. But because I know Zuma, the person, not the politician.”
Helen Zille is the chairperson of the DA federal council, a former Western Cape premier, and former DA leader.