In a recent article, Jacob Zuma was reported as calling himself a political genius. This was promptly followed by heckling from social media and the public. How could Zuma, the notorious idiot, the destroyer of South Africa and the bane of the ANC be a political genius? Sounds ridiculous. But what these hecklers forget is that a political genius doesn’t need to be ruling in favour of the country itself.
Zuma is no doubt a fool when it comes to understanding economics and statesmanship. It is also foolish to think he could cut it as a political scientist or analyst, but he has proven himself adequately Machiavellian and successful when it comes to achieving his own personal success.
A genius he is not, but Zuma is no doubt a cunning and skilled politician. Politics is the art of power and Zuma has shown an adeptness in retaining and gaining power. He eliminates his competition, secures the means to retain power and dominance over the state, and manages to stay elected despite record unpopularity.
What needs to be examined in answering the question of whether Zuma is a political genius is simply if he is succeeding in his goals. Only the naïve would ascribe selfless rule to South Africa’s President, so one should not expect South Africa’s prosperity to be one of his goals. Rather, Zuma’s goals are to secure his own personal power and wealth, and secure his family as a wealthy and powerful dynasty.
Zuma’s goal has never been the welfare of this country. At one time, maybe he cared about the ANC. He did benefit the party once, bringing in a lot of support. Now, he seems to be more of a liability, with the ANC losing votes with him as the most cited reason. Yet, he clings on. This could be pure stupidity, but his corrupt dealings suggest that his goals have shifted to that of the personal and the familial. He no longer cares about the green and yellow. He only wants to maximise his power and keep his head off the chopping block. For now, he has succeeded despite a population which hates him, a party which hates him, and a database of pending criminal accusations against him.
Zuma is by no means a good leader. His party is losing support. The economy, under his policies and short-sighted appointments, has faltered and is only barely holding itself out of junk status. South Africa is not a country to give its President with bragging rights.
Zuma is by no means a Bismarck or Richelieu, who were both no doubt political geniuses, but that does not disqualify him from the running. Bismarck and Richelieu cared about the empowerment of their countries. By succeeding in their goals, they were deemed political geniuses. Zuma’s goal is the attaining and retaining of personal power – for now, he has succeeded, despite the odds. That deserves some kudos.
What remains to be seen is if Zuma’s inability to understand economics and the political economy will finally cost him his job. Zuma’s late 2015 appointment of Des van Rooyen was a slip up, as Zuma’s instinctual approach to politics proved to be inadequate to understand the whims of the market. As such, opposition to Zuma reached a fever pitch.
Nkandla, his relationship with the Guptas, and the Public Protector report that followed did prove a slip up that may cost him his power, at least eventually. Even so, he is still reigning – and must not be underestimated by hecklers or the opposition. It is important to understand one’s enemies and while satire can be important to disempower authority, it also runs the risk of underestimating a very cunning and powerful man.