Tony Leon finds parallels in literature ranging from Superman to Tacitus to ‘Catch-22’ for the plight of the president and his party.
Several notables are cited as originators of the famous formula, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Among the claimants is Joseph Heller, author of the iconic 20th-century satirical novel Catch-22.
Proof positive of the quote recently was the well-leaked response of President Jacob Zuma to a weekend ambush by members of his normally deferential ANC national executive.
Second was the irresolute outcome of the motion of no confidence in Zuma: in plain Churchillian words, “we are decided to be undecided”. The president stays in place, wounded but still politically alive, and the party staggers on for a few more months until the next conclave, which might or might not decide to let him stagger on a bit more.
But not even the ANC or its leadership can forever defy the pull of gravity.
Both the whiff of paranoia that permeated his defence and the party decision to make no change at the top suggest a damned-if-they-do and damned-if-they-don’t response from the ruling party.
It’s an almost perfect fit of Heller’s original catch-22: a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.
Translate this template onto the contested terrain on which Zuma’s faltering and failing leadership was judged and both insiders and outsiders see the paradox.
Dump Zuma and the dogs of factional war and disunity are unleashed and a large section of the party hierarchy and the lucrative assets which state capture has gifted them go down with him. Then there’s the ethnic card, never far from the top of the party pack these days, reflected even in the poor August election results.
A staggering one quarter of the ANC national voting support now comes from just one province, Zuma’s fiefdom, KwaZulu-Natal. This is the one region where the party total never fell in the local polls despite calamitous results in the other major centres.
And there’s always comfort in the status quo and the quiet life it offers, however unsatisfactory.
The Roman Tacitus, one of antiquity’s great historians, reflected on the “plunder, slaughter and the stealing … and this they falsely call it empire”. His conclusion might apply to state looting here and the unwillingness to change it: “Where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
Indeed, hanging onto Zuma brings to mind a less high-minded classic than either old Tacitus or modern Catch-22. Some of my primary school pocket money was misspent buying The Adventures of Supermancomic.
The valiant eponymous hero was pitted against the evil Dr Lex Luthor, who used radioactive pieces of the planet Krypton, Superman’s birthplace, to harm Superman. Many deride the unreality that surrounds what some call “Planet Zuma” – but, on any reading, he is having a Kryptonic effect on his party and its future.
block_quotes_start At the NEC Zuma apparently cited a rich and diverse list of enemies accountable for the current crises
The ANC might be woven into Zuma’s DNA by now and vice versa, but as Superman discovered, bits and pieces of your own origins can, over time, turn radioactive.
Doubtless, some of Zuma’s more high-minded internal critics noted this. Or perhaps they also cited his disdain for constitutional niceties, his disrespect for good governance or his incompetence at navigating the complexities of an emerging-market economy in the stormy seas and global tides crashing over us, and withdrawing from our shores.
Or maybe it was the simple arithmetic of political survival for some who faced a presidential “firing squad” anyway and might as well tell their appointing authority what they really thought of him.
Then others, perhaps on the basis of the old axiom “it’s our turn to eat”, decided that the magic circle of instant riches conducted to such lucrative effect by Saxonwold’s most infamous family needed to be closed down.
Or, less nobly, the scheme they have perfected of alchemising presidential access into personal profit needs to be kept but requires a new name and address.
How seriously, then, should we take the apparent paranoia which informed Zuma’s response both last weekend as the wagons circled around him and even before that when he spoke of “witches” and the like in open forums?
At the NEC, he apparently cited a rich and diverse list of enemies accountable for the current crises: Western powers, three poison attempts and the “enemy opposition” were cited as reasons for Nkandla, his corruption charges and the spy tapes saga.
Quite what the linkage between this improbable trifecta is remains beside the point. Always good to rally the troops by claiming outside nefarious influences are out to get you.
Zuma jetted from his wounding encounter at the NEC across the world to Cuba to join the mourning for its most famous revolutionary and its president of over 50 years, Fidel Castro.
Castro, who simultaneously assisted in liberating countries from colonialism and converted his island into a prison, had no shortage of enemies, real and imagined.
And the imperial evil of El Yanqi across the waters provided a handy alibi for both his failures and his repression. But as countless failed efforts by the CIA to topple him proved, these were not just paranoid imaginings.
And Zuma and his Cuban hosts can look at the US mainland right now and see in its next president, Donald J Trump, the latest adherent to the paranoid school of politics, proving that this strain crosses ideologies, borders and ethnic origins.
It is useful in a dictatorship and now, apparently, is a vote-winning formula in one of the world’s most advanced democracies.
Of course, Zuma’s presidency did not begin on this note: in 2009 he sang in a far more inclusive and open tone. Perhaps he was reminded of the paranoia – from inside spy plots to midnight searches of the dark internet to find HIV/Aids conspiracies – that gripped and upended the Mbeki presidency.
But he is now singing from the same songbook, but in much worse political and economic shape than his predecessor.
So the dead leader of Cuba, the current president of South Africa and the next president of the US traffic in conspiracy theories, tinged perhaps with paranoia. What’s the harm, you might ask, given that facts and data seem so out of date and fashion?
A useful response was provided this week by someone who served as my political strategist when I was opposition leader and went on to perform the same role for Helen Zille and then later in Britain for former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
Ryan Coetzee does not indicate which, if any, of this troika that he served he drew on for the observation that most political leaders can be divided into one of two, sometimes overlapping, profiles, the narcissist and the paranoid.
He concludes that narcissism, and craving for attention, provided they are kept in check, can be necessary to sustain the slog of political life. But it is the paranoids in leadership who spell danger.
“They obsess about control in a profession which doesn’t offer much of it and are driven mad by overwhelming feelings of vulnerability; they are conspirators who see conspiracies everywhere; they regard their opponents as enemies to be vanquished, sometimes liquidated. They are the ones who turn into monsters.”
When this and other countries’ all-powerful presidents double down on the politics of paranoia, both allies and opponents should take careful note. And apply the necessary precautions.
Leon was an MP and leader of the official opposition in parliament from 1999-2007. He is also a former South African ambassador to Argentina