Johannesburg—Notwithstanding vast differences in their self-interest, political styles, and constituencies, outgoing and incoming South African presidents Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa appear to be exactly the characters Frantz Fanon had in mind when lamenting the continent’s postcolonial politics in 1961. The Wretched of the Earth’s prescient chapter on “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” named Africa’s comprador elites as “the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism.”
Ramaphosa-types appear, in Fanon’s text, “quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, play[ing their] part without any complexes in a most dignified manner.” (Even Ramaphosa’s speaking style exudes neocolonial dignity.) As for the Trumpish buffoon Zuma, Fanon might have aimed these words in his direction: “This same lucrative role, this cheap-jack’s function, this meanness of outlook and this absence of all ambition symbolize the incapability of the national middle class to fulfill its historic role of bourgeoisie. Here, the dynamic, pioneer aspect, the characteristics of the inventor and of the discoverer of new worlds which are found in all national bourgeoisies are lamentably absent.”
Zuma zigzags to ignominy
It was not always like this, for both Zuma and Ramaphosa were true pioneers of anti-apartheid liberation. Zuma’s fall was particularly tragic, given how far he had risen from peasant in rural KwaZulu’s fields to proletarian in the nearest big city, Durban, to freedom fighter jailed on Robben Island, to head of the exiled African National Congress intelligence wing. After the ANC’s unbanning in 1990, Zuma negotiated a crucial truce between the ANC and the Zulu-ethnicist leader Gatsha Buthelezi (Ronald Reagan’s great mate), whose traditionalist Inkatha movement fought the much more modern, urban nationalists of the ANC. Prior to Zuma’s intervention, thousands of the often-divided Zulu people were killed.
But then, after the early 1990s, Zuma went from being “a simple man”—as his ANC intelligence comrade Ronnie Kasrils put it in an evocative book last year—to a greedy pol dependent upon corrupt fixers who managed his complex family finances. With 22 children and four current wives (one of whom was banished from his rural homestead for allegedly poisoning him just before a meeting with Barack Obama in mid-2014), Zuma turned first for relief to Durban anti-apartheid activist Schabir Shaik. But Shaik was caught with a revealing encrypted fax and in 2005 was prosecuted for facilitating bribes by the French arms firm Thales. For that, Zuma is likely to be prosecuted on 783 counts of corruption in the coming months. Shaik was jailed for 28 months of his 15-year sentence, but was released thanks to an apparently fabricated medical discharge.