JOHANNESBURG – He’s back.
Tarnished by scandal, former South African president Jacob Zuma resigned in February after his own ruling party turned against him. Then old corruption charges against him were reinstated, seemingly sealing his downfall.
But now Zuma has ramped up his profile, popping up on Twitter in a robust pushback against his many critics. Some backers reportedly nominated him for a seat in parliament after elections in 2019.
For now, 76-year-old Zuma appears focused on rehabilitating his image and paying legal fees. Yet his continuing appeal to a staunch base of supporters, mainly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, reflects conflicted attitudes in South Africa, where many say the former leader dragged down the country with him. Further, Zuma personifies the divisions and vulnerabilities of the governing African National Congress, which led the fight against white minority rule but lost its shine because of alleged mismanagement and corruption.
While South Africa’s political and government leaders reduce activities during the holiday period, Zuma is making announcements and public appearances.
On Sunday, he posted two videos on Twitter in which he said he had instructed his lawyers to appeal a court ruling that he should reimburse the state for legal funds used to fight corruption allegations in the past decade. Court judgments must be respected, but this particular one was contradictory, said Zuma, who looked relaxed and wore a white shirt with gold trimming along one side.
“I just thought I should make those comments for all to know how I feel,” Zuma said in the folksy, disarming style that he used to fend off accusations for so many years.
The ex-president, who was jailed for 10 years in the same island prison where Nelson Mandela was held during apartheid, has tapped into the view of many black South Africans who think the white minority got away with too many privileges, including economic power, and not enough punishment. He also has the sympathy of factions with the ANC that want to raise money for Zuma, even though he is blamed for a slide in the party’s popularity.
“We are owning up to this particular matter,” party spokesman Dakota Legoete said on state broadcaster SABC, one of a number of public enterprises struggling with financial and management problems that escalated during Zuma’s tenure.
“Members of the ANC, either through donations and through other forms, they can assist our former president, both as the leader of the ANC and the former state president of the republic. I don’t foresee any problem,” Legoete said.
The former president has effectively campaigned for the ANC, telling people at one rally that they shouldn’t shun the party because of any mistake that he made. Zuma is also on casual terms with some key government figures.
“Welcome on board. Don’t forget to fasten seat belts,” Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tweeted after Zuma joined the social media platform this month.
At the same time, the rot at top levels of the South African government during Zuma’s presidency is being exposed on national television by a commission of inquiry investigating “state capture,” a local term that refers to the alleged looting of state coffers and manipulation of government posts for personal gain. Led by a Constitutional Court judge, the commission does not have the power to prosecute but witnesses have testified that state enterprises were infiltrated by the Guptas, a business family with close ties to Zuma. The Guptas and the former president deny wrongdoing.
Zuma’s successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to fight corruption and his appointment of Shamila Batohi, a senior legal adviser at the International Criminal Court, as head of South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority highlights his efforts to clean house. Yet some critics are impatient, saying anti-graft talk must be matched with prosecutions of senior officials.
In a measure of his popularity in some ANC branches, Zuma was nominated to a party list of candidates for parliament that will be finalized next month, according to South African media. However, the Sunday Times, a South African newspaper, said it was unlikely that Zuma would go for the job. Being a member of parliament would require him to give up big benefits as a former president.
Last week, Zuma attended a chess tournament named after him and said he hoped the game would become compulsory in schools because it teaches problem-solving.
“Once you know chess, your mind is taught to do things carefully,” he said.
Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/torchiachris