If there’s one thing South Africans can agree on, it’s that former President Jacob Zuma has always been adept at putting on a show. This has historically served him well – even since he was ousted in 2018. But lately his performance repertoire (and powerful stage) have both been significantly diminished.
It comes as no surprise therefore that he’s resorted to long-standing strategies in his appearance at the Zondo Commission of inquiry into corruption.
These days, Zuma is fighting a battle for political capital. To maintain popular support he needs media coverage: he needs to stay visible to stay relevant. It’s a canny calculation: Zuma knows he won’t change his critic’s minds, but he does stand to lose his supporter’s fervour if he is invisible for too long.
To that end, he has deployed a wider strategy. To date, this has mostly taken the form of his infamous December 2018 “Twitter comeback” –- taking control of the online narrative through his own social media account.
Starting with a curious video post in which he slowly and repeatedly declared himself to be “the real Jacob Zuma,” he announced that he had
“ ... decided to move with the times, to join this important area of conversation because I hear many people are talking about me.”
Since then, his account has rapidly grown in popularity, swiftly amassing a sizeable 318k followers to the Presidency’s 1.1 million (on Twitter, of course, controversy pays off: Helen Zille has 1.3 million).
Zuma has used his account seemingly tamely, rarely giving any overt political commentary on charges, accusations or machinations of state. Rather, he uses the platform to release video “statements” wishing his followers well over holidays or telling lengthy, often rambling, personal anecdotes.
Typically, these video messages are low-tech and filmed from a living room. This serves up both a veneer of authenticity – a lack of high tech production value intimates we are getting the “real” Zuma – and a faux intimacy. While these messages may seem random and clumsily executed, they strategically portray Zuma as an elder but not elderly: here’s Zuma mock sparring with his son, and here he posts a clip of his daughter’s graduation.
Playing the benign “Baba” (father in isiZulu) serves him well –- an elder statesman and grandfather demands respect, is accorded a certain allowance. Certainly, to critics – often termed “enemies” –- he becomes the butt of a joke. Yet to supporters, he offers an insider look – quite literally, in some videos, a place at his own table.
“That Mabana video reminded me of the time we were detained at Hercules Police Station.”
It’s accompanied by an armchair anecdote of how the police used racial racial slurs against him. The story itself ends on a cliffhanger: “I will have to finish this story soon” – eliciting storms of follower requests to “Please do, Baba”.
By tying himself to a narrative of past struggle hero and recalling apartheid-era espionage, Zuma doubles down on painting himself as a survivor of a hostile system, a servant of the struggle.
This tactic was on full display during the Zondo testimony at the Zondo commission. His memory was impeccable when it came to regaling the commission with asides about his role in the struggle and history of coup plots against him , but remarkably vague with recollection of any activity relating to corruption.
Such selective memory proffers a winking nod to his supporters, while avoiding being pinned down by all others: a verbal form of his sparring video clips.
This interest in presenting a deep history of alternate Zumas – Jacob the struggle hero, or the trade unionist – is a play that’s being picked up by his Foundation. Currently, they’re requesting essay submissions from ordinary South Africans on the “impact and influence of the former President.”
One can only imagine the potential contributions, which is perhaps why they stipulate that submissions must include a one-paragraph resume.
In line with the frequent references, both on social media and during the Zondo testimony, to his struggle hero credentials and various plots he has survived, Zuma has also been at pains to frame himself as a poor man – his wealth reduced and sucked dry by his service to the cause. Who, after all, is not feeling the pinch in these trying times? The fact that the times are almost uniformly attributable to Zuma himself is a wrinkle conveniently left unironed.
Despite this newfound humble presentation, spectacle is never far from Zuma’s core repertoire. At Zondo, this was outsourced to full effect to a vocal supporter gallery, including the deployment of a chillingly effective slow clap and chant. The facts against Zuma may well stubbornly remain, but the performance must go on.
Much more effective than mere “yes men”, the militant public show of loyalty is what carries Zuma’s public relations momentum from his curated Twitter feed. As he is well aware, the Zondo Commission will be reduced to headlines, grab quotes and iconic images of many South Africans. For most, it will simply be represented by viral clips and memes. Nothing translates as well as a catchy entrance and, once again, Zuma got his takeaway moment.
Laugh or cry
This brings us to Zuma’s second performance strategy: above all else, keep them laughing.
Zuma is infamous for deploying a chuckle: the hollow sound of his parliamentary laughter still haunts much of the South African consciousness. His ability to laugh off even the most gruesome accusations has continued in his social media performance. Referencing The Sunday Times accusation of him having a secret property in Dubai, he tweeted no April 9th:
“Sigh! …I owe millions in legal fees… I’ve asked you to assist with that one title deed in order for me to sell the house.”
Before commencing his Zondo testimony (during which his Twitter account has strategically fallen silent) he posted a video captioned, simply:
“I thought I should brighten up your day.”
In it, we see a jovial Zuma outside a door, pantomiming the protest slogan “Zuma must fall” in time to a short, improvised dance. Immediately, the tweet went viral (over 590 000 views to date), aided by media personalities such as “The Kiffness”, a social-savvy comedian, who remixed it into a catchy music video.
Zuma’s surefire knowledge of providing the base for viral content ensures his continued relevancy in public discourse. In this, he’s aided and abetted by SA media, cartoonists and comedians, who can’t resist the chance to make him the butt of their own jokes.
By positioning himself as a loveable granddad “Baba” to supporters and the punchline of a joke to his opposition, Zuma adroitly defangs the very serious charges against him.
After all, the joker can say anything, so long as he keeps you laughing.
Carla Lever, Research Fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town.