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Zuma fought the law and the law won: how the police outplayed him

Jacob Zuma has been a master spin doctor during his political career, but it all came crashing down this week

“Okungapheli kuyahlola” goes an African proverb understood perfectly by all who speak Nguni languages. 

Simply translated it means “everything comes to an end” and this week, after the spectacular failure of former president Jacob Zuma to use propaganda to evade accountability for his actions, it rings true.

Zuma handed himself over to the police in the early hours of Thursday.

The country’s former Number One is no stranger to running subtle propaganda campaigns to try to sway public opinion in his favour and garner sympathy.

Throughout his political career in the democratic dispensation Zuma has survived through them, some using sophisticated intelligence operations, others simply music.

In all of them the former president had willing and unwilling participants — some benefited, others didn’t, he always did. 

Let us take Zuma’s use of music, particularly the maskandi genre popular among rural Zulu and Nguni people, to drive self-serving propaganda campaigns and sustain himself politically.

Whether the musicians who recorded these pro-Zuma songs were willing participants or in it for self-promotion is a story for another day.

Three songs provide for good reference and all were released at opportune times in Zuma’s political career.

The start of Zuma’s woes in the ongoing arms deal saga came to the fore in the early 2000s and, just in time, one of maskandi’s greats, the late Mfaz’omnyama, jumped in.

The artist released a banger titled kukhona okuzovela ngalendaba kaThabo Mbeki, which sought to paint a picture that it was then-president Thabo Mbeki who was after Zuma.

With this song Zuma became “the victim” of a political conspiracy meant to stop his ascendancy to the top and Mbeki was purported to be behind this.

Fast-forward to 2008, just after Zuma’s victory at the ANC’s Polokwane conference, where he defeated Mbeki for the party’s top job.

His legal woes in the arms deal case were lingering, casting doubt on whether Zuma would ascend to the Union Buildings.

Enter Izingane Zoma with Msholozi, a song that claimed “bonke abantu bathi bafuna uZuma aphathe” (the people want Zuma).

The charges were withdrawn the same year, paving the way for Zuma to head to Pretoria.

This year was the turn of maskandi artist Sgwebo Sentambo, whose songAlibuyele kuZuma called for Zuma’s return to power.

It was no coincidence that Sentambo visited Zuma at his home for a thumbs-up a week before his sentencing and in time for the weekend’s events outside the home of the former president.

At Nkandla his offering was the theme song that fired up Zuma supporters there and on social media platforms.

After Zuma was sentenced by the Constitutional Court last week, his son Edward, who was at the heart of the misinformation offensive, declared he would die for his father.

He was ready to be the human shield who would stand in the way of law enforcement arresting his father and be killed if needs be, he said.

This statement was the trigger for many to descend on Zuma’s home to be part of the “human shield”.

On Thursday last week the operation escalated with a somewhat unruly motorcade from Eshowe to Nkandla.

It was characterised by gunshots fired into the air as videos were recorded by participants and mainstream media, going straight to social media platforms.

With this, the well-planned narrative of “another Marikana” and “bloodshed” was born as Edward fuelled it in interviews as a strategically deployed family spokesperson outside the homestead where the media had gathered.

 The firing of gunshots in the air was intended to invite a hostile police reaction that would result in a confrontation to create the impression Zuma’s supporters were ready to die for him and that “another Marikana” was on the cards.

The police, it appears, had studied this well and elected to steer clear of Zuma’s home, monitoring the situation from a distance.

At this point the idea of armed people in cars heading to Nkandla was gaining traction on social media.

For legitimacy there needed to be a Zuma and so into the fray jumped his daughter, Dudu Sambudla-Zuma, with a video of faceless people firing rounds into the air.

The stunts didn’t work and the police continued to stay away.

On Friday the propaganda strategy was militarised, with poorly trained, no-real-war-experience Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) members pledging their readiness to die for Zuma, led by their spokesperson, Carl Niehaus.

The bigger strategy, it would seem, was to get to the social and moral conscience of the judiciary to reverse Zuma’s sentence through applications in the high and apex courts.

The dates set down might have fooled Zuma and his supporters into thinking their strategy was working.

Thus the campaign moved up a notch on Saturday when Zuma showed face, surrounded by spear-wielding amabutho (Zulu warriors), as he took a brief walk outside his residence.

Inside he addressed amabutho, saying he would not hand himself over because he was innocent.

That address was leaked, strategically, to fire up his supporters and send chills down the spines of police regarding an appropriate response if Zuma was being honest about not surrendering.

It also did a good job of galvanising supporters who, for the first time, came out in big numbers on Sunday, the first time police reacted, albeit with restraint.

Zuma addressed the large gathering on Sunday, cementing his message with a press briefing later, after his supporters had returned to their homes. 

The collapse of the entire strategy came on Tuesday after Pietermaritzburg high court judge Jerome Mnguni reserved judgment until Friday on Zuma’s application to stay the arrest warrant.

Only then did it dawn on Zuma and his supporters, who had long left his residence, that the Constitutional Court order for his arrest by midnight Wednesday was still very much in place.

For the first time, the police took charge in Nkandla, setting up roadblocks and searching every vehicle heading the direction of Zuma’s residence.

It was checkmate for a seasoned political chess player who, over the years, mastered the art of propaganda.  

For many supporters it was too late and simply impossible to return to his residence. For Zuma, it became apparent that his propaganda campaign had been futile and could not save him.

As the deadline for his arrest drew closer, with just Edward and a handful of supporters at his gate, Zuma was isolated, with no option but to hand himself over in a dignified manner.

And with that came the spectacular collapse of a propagandist machine that sustained him politically for decades.

As they say, it indeed ended in tears as Zuma started his sentence at the Estcourt prison on Thursday.

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