Why do ordinary South Africans like Zuma? Isn’t he a bad guy?

Protests against Jacob Zuma's prison sentence Photo: EPA

Are you mystified? Well, allow me to enlighten you!

We are watching ordinary South Africans riot as they see Jacob Zuma tried and sentenced to jail for corruption. If you live in the UK or in Europe or in the USA then your media cannot explain to you why this is happening. Why are people defending Jacob Zuma? As Adam Curtis put it, when the media doesn’t inform us properly about what is happening then all we can do is throw up our hands, shrug and say: ‘Oh dear!’

Great Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand are now full of embittered white South Africans who left because Apartheid ended. Don’t let them bend your ear and drip poison into it, either. They are not a reliable source of information on South Africa. When you meet them at work and in pubs or bars, remember who they are and take what they say with a big pinch of salt.

Jacob Zuma earned the respect of the majority of ordinary South Africans the hard way.
Jacob Zuma was jailed for 15 years on Robben Island from 14th February 1964 to March 1979. After his release he organised internal resistance for two years and then, after setting up ANC intelligence networks, he joined the Central Committee of the ANC.

Great Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand are now full of embittered white South Africans who left because Apartheid ended.


In comparison to Nelson Mandela (may he rest in peace) Jacob Zuma is what the Chinese would call “an uncarved block”. Although Nelson Mandela was a high-ranking member of the Tembu Royal House who rejected tribal customs and ran away from an arranged marriage. Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, had no formal education. He was self taught, and he behaved and lived like a traditional Zulu chief with six wives and twenty children. In contrast, Nelson Mandela studied law at the University of Witwatersrand and set up his own Law practice.


Perhaps it was partly this unpolished traditionalism that helped Zuma in the early 1990s, as ANC Chairperson of the Southern Natal Region, persuade the Zulus to turn away from bloody civil war, and to persuade Inkatha to sign peace accords and channel its energies into democratic competition in the elections of 1994. It was not Mandela who stopped the civil war, but Zuma. I can hear some of you now.

‘What civil war?

Machete and spear-wielding Inkatha party members massacred ANC supporters in Boipatong- June 1992


In succeeding by preventing the civil war, Zuma sabotaged the last gasp effort of the Apartheid regime, in collusion with Inkatha, to Balkanise South Africa: to shatter the new born ‘Rainbow Nation’ and set up black enclaves and white enclaves.


But, five years later, Zuma attracted the enmity of the neoliberal wing of the ANC being groomed by foreign and domestic capital, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa. This enmity started after he began to speak out against Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies and the failure of Thabo Mbeki’s government to redress the structural problems of inequality created by Apartheid.

Zuma sabotaged the last gasp effort of the Apartheid regime, in collusion with Inkatha, to Balkanise South Africa

The riots that you see happening now in South Africa are as a result of these failures. Don’t blame Zuma for the structural inequalities. In criticising neoliberalism, Jacob Zuma, nominally a socialist, also attracted the support of many people on the left in South Africa in the ANC and the Trade Union movement (COSATU) and in the South African Communist Party. The knives came out. Jacob Zuma was now targetted by forces at home in South Africa and abroad.

It was no surprise then when an orchestrated campaign against Jacob Zuma began. Zuma came to represent the alternative to Mbeki. The “Zuma Matter” – as it was known in South Africa – began with a press conference given by Thanda Mngwengwe, the Head of the Scorpions.

Zuma attracted the enmity of the neoliberal wing of the ANC being groomed by foreign and domestic capital, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa.


Subsequently, the corruption charges brought against Jacob Zuma were dropped. But the attempts to stop him from reaching the presidency continued. On the following two occasions the charges were dropped against Zuma because, according to Judge Chris Nicholson and then Mokotedi Mpshe (head of the National Prosecuting Authority), the judicial process against Zuma was manipulated by Thabo Mbeki.

In the second instance, the accusation was backed up with evidence: recordings of Thabo Mbeki caught discussing how to make political capital out of the Zuma Matter with Leonard McCarthy, the former head of the disbanded and discredited elite anti-crime unit, the Scorpions – initially responsible for bringing Zuma to trial and investigating him.


The opposition appealed and, with the help of judge Azar Cachalia, suspected (and with good reason) of having a personal vendetta against Zuma, and judge Louis Harms, (who conducted the “Harms Commission” in the 1980s in London which effectively exonerated the Apartheid regime of war crimes), they tried to reopen the case.

An enormous effort went into magnifying the charges against Zuma to discredit him. The tactic of domestic corporations and international agencies attempting to get rid of Zuma were successful and Zuma was recalled and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, a darling of the corporations. Remember, Zuma din’t lose in an election.

This tactic of highlighting questionable behaviour and corruption by representatives of foreign governments played no part in British foreign policy, for example, when it came to the one billion dollar bribe paid to Saudi officials by a British company to get a contract. But when it came to Zuma, and how he benefitted from being the President of South Africa, it became a priority of the British government to help take Zuma down. He was an opponent of rampant neoliberalism, and, as they perceived it, of British strategic interests in South Africa.

So, when representatives of the western media like Simon Jenkins and Simon Tisdall, and organisations like the Guardian and the BBC sided with the opposition to Jacob Zuma, it is probable that they were not offering high-minded independent opposition to a corrupt and discredited South African politician at all, but behaving as part of the British media-security apparatus.

There is a contradiction. If you don’t take the Guardian or the BBC seriously when it comes to reporting or commenting on socialism in the UK, then why should you take them seriously when it comes to their take on politics in South Africa? Now, because of their lopsided reporting on Jacob Zuma, they have no way of explaining convincingly what is happening.


An earlier version of this article resulted in Ros Taylor, the former Law Editor at the Guardian banning me from writing for that newspaper. It was probably a decision taken by several editors. I am grateful for the help of Dominic Tweedie in the writing of this article.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.