Zuma’s fall from grace gave him space to plot comeback
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles
IF A week in politics is a long time, a decade is an eon.
This much is plain from three tantalising headlines from the second week of June, 2005: “Is this the end of the road for Jacob Zuma?” was the first. The second was: “Accountability and good governance before all else”, and the third – the most accurate of the three, it turns out – “ANC becomes battlefield for Zuma’s future”.
We can only imagine how, in his more reflective moments, Jacob Zuma thinks about the events of June 14, 2005, the moment when, as one of those reports put it: “President Thabo Mbeki’s iron fist came crashing down (and) he fired Deputy President Jacob Zuma”.
Another report captured the drama of the moment: “The Reuters flash at 11 minutes after two o’clock – a spare seven words, all in capitals – read like a headline: ‘S Africa’s Mbeki fires Deputy President Jacob Zuma’. In the old days, a bell would have sounded on telex machines in newsrooms across the world. That there was no bell shortly after 2pm yesterday didn’t matter, and didn’t detract from the crisp essence of a political courage many thought Thabo Mbeki did not possess.”
It almost doesn’t bear imagining how Thabo Mbeki remembers those days.
Or how South Africans might make sense of the following: “For some years now, President Mbeki and other senior members of the ANC have, with increasing impatience, criticised politicians and functionaries who have abused their positions for personal gain, declaring that corruption will not be tolerated. “But there was a creeping suspicion of a wide difference between the words and the deeds of the ruling party. In an almost unthinkably dramatic way, Mbeki dispelled such suspicions yesterday. “Where so many of the tentative, defensive manoeuvrings of the past decade suggested that, when key people were at risk, the ANC was a glad inheritor of the Nat tradition of ignoring criticism and brazening out controversy on the strength, too often, of the innocent-until-proved-guilty argument, yesterday’s firm handling of a politician as senior and as powerful as Zuma casts a very different light on the governing party. It can be taken more seriously and, holding to its new precedent, it will be.”
That report ended: “Mbeki’s sharpest critic, DA leader Tony Leon, is probably right in saying: ‘This day will be remembered as a landmark in our nation’s history. From now on, accountability and political courage will always be measured against it’.”
How wistfully many will read this, from another report: “What does all of this mean? It means, simply put, that Zuma is finished. It means that what we are witnessing is one of the few steps in the final act that will kill off Zuma’s chances for the biggest job in the country.”
On the face of it, it shows that journalists can be very wrong – but the same is true of any observer of an isolated event in a sequence. The penalty, for journalists, is that they are required to provide a considered insight every 24 hours.
But, in politics, it seems unnecessary to point out, the best advice is: never say never.
The one report that was on the button was the one headlined “ANC becomes battlefield for Zuma’s future”, which began: “President Thabo than 10 000 pupils gathered near Phefeni High School. They threw stones at the police, smashing several windscreens.
Later the pupils held a white man hostage after someone shouted: “Here’s a White man. Let’s get him.” Stones rained on his truck. The truck was set upon with axes, crowbars, stones and… more.
Passing taxis were stopped and drivers were told to give the Black power salute. If they did not, their vehicles were either rocked or stoned.
About midday at Orlando West, two delivery vans – one carrying milk, the other bread – were looted and stoned. The drivers were held up and robbed of their takings. Mbeki’s iron fist came crashing down yesterday when he fired Deputy President Jacob Zuma, but the real battle now moves to the ANC.”
It went on: “Although it was the president’s constitutional prerogative to fire his deputy, Zuma remains the deputy president of the ANC and has lobbied the length and breadth of the country to shore up support in the organisation.
“However, members of the ANC Youth League, among Zuma’s most vociferous supporters, are not the kingmakers of old, and those within the alliance who publicly backed Zuma failed to challenge the president yesterday at a meeting in Cape Town, despite earlier ‘war talk’.
“Even Cosatu leaders such as Zwelinzima Vavi and Willie Madisha, who continue to be vocal in their support, do not have a united trade union movement behind them on the Zuma question.
“Madisha fired another salvo yesterday. He told 702 TalkRadio that his organisation would not take Zuma’s sacking lying down and would fight back.
“Zuma supporters, meanwhile, are preparing for their man to be king.
“The climax of this political war is expected at the ANC conference in 2007, when Mbeki is expected to fight to retain the presidency of the party.”
He fought, but lost – to Jacob Zuma – on December 18, 2007. Zuma went on to become the ANC’s presidential candidate in the 2009 election.
On another June day exactly a decade earlier, in 1999, Mbeki had taken over the reins from Nelson Mandela, declaring – as the headline on that day captured it – “Let us believe in our African dream”.
It became, instead, a personal nightmare and, many believe, a national one, too.
At the other end of Soweto… a mechanical horse and trailer lorry were stopped. Much of its cargo of beer was taken before the vehicle was set alight.
An administrative office was set alight and records were destroyed. The officials fled when they saw the pupils approach.
The demonstrators then marched to White City No 1 office and ransacked it before setting it alight. Overhead, two helicopters were dropping tear gas bombs.
Near Crossroads, a man lay with a bullet wound in the head. When reporters tried to interview the police guarding the body, they were told: “It’s none of your business.”
Former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma ahead of the official unveiling of Nelson Mandela’s statue during the 2013 National Day of Reconciliation at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
A policeman, armed with a handgun and a baseball bat, during the 1976 ‘unrest’ in Cape Town.