JZ will compare the desolation of Robben Island with the improved conditions at Estcourt, but it will not bring him comfort, says the writer. File picture: Neil Baynes/ANA
JZ will compare the desolation of Robben Island with the improved conditions at Estcourt, but it will not bring him comfort, says the writer. File picture: Neil Baynes/ANA

Hopefully, Zuma will use his time behind bars for self-reflection and healing

By Professor Saths Cooper Time of article published Jul 11, 2021

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After nine rollercoaster days of intense emotions and high drama, our fourth Head of State began his unfortunate, but inevitable and extraordinary imprisonment for contempt of court on Thursday. While those who blame him for all our public and personal ills may rejoice, it was a sad day for our hard-won but fragile democracy that we reached this grave pass.

Usually sharp-witted, quick to laugh – especially at his own foibles – time has taken its toll on this tough, proud leader who has survived ridicule, diminution of his contributions, and numerous challenges. Even his fiercest critics would have felt a modicum of pity at the drawn, exhausted leader we saw at his press conference last Sunday evening.

As he was driven at break-neck speed from Nkandla to the Estcourt “new generational correctional centre” that was built during his Presidency, he could not have anticipated what awaited him. Quite different from the short-shrift, yet brutal, processing of political prisoners at Robben Island, where President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (JZ) was one of the hundreds of freedom fighters with almost no rights.

Now with rights, the prolonged heavily documented processing would have been a trying introduction to his new surroundings, heightening his need for privacy. The leaked pictures of this processing, besides fuelling cries of foul, add to unnecessary humiliation and intrusiveness in his temporary abode. JZ will compare the desolation of Robben Island with the improved conditions at Estcourt, but it will not bring him comfort.

Now serving his fourth day of the mandatory 14 days of isolation under the health protocols of the raging and deadly pandemic, JZ would be experiencing a range of conflicting emotions and bittersweet feelings. Recollection of jarring memories – particularly in answering his now rhetorical question of “Ngenzeni?” – will persist, overshadowing happier and stirring moments, trying to make sense of it all, where it all went dreadfully wrong.

There will be anger at those who are responsible for the tremendous loss of his freedom, which he fought for since his youth. The painful realisation of leaving behind nearly all that he struggled for and enjoyed – continuing to be surrounded by respectful minders, while being utterly alone. Nobody else can serve your sentence, even in a spanking new facility, devoid of the stench of crusty sweat-ridden coarse blankets and other baleful odours. Prison is not for the fainthearted, which JZ is definitely not, but the ignominy of descending from the highest office in the land to being Prisoner No. …/21 will take its toll.

Having grown accustomed to the constant vigilance of his previous security detail and his various supporters, the current round-the clock watchfulness, specific eating times, and numerous impositions in a terribly constrained environment will have an impact, wounding his pride.

Despite the palpable stresses and tensions of a foreboding Robben Island, the company of fellow freedom fighters and the knowledge that millions of people on the mainland were supportive, inspired tremendous strength and lifted spirits. That support tended to minimise the soul-destroying assault on one’s integrity and dignity. In his current imprisonment surrounded by convicted criminals, feelings of anger, bitterness, betrayal, injustice and bewilderment may emerge above the ever-present attentiveness of his jailers. He will fleetingly ponder the frightful display of support that is currently evident. The push to disavow their actions will be furthest from his mind, losing the opportunity to evince the leadership that he is capable of, strengthening his stature.

I’ve known all five of our presidents since May 1994 to varying degrees. Without depreciating any of them, I can attest to JZ’s personable and engaging qualities, which have endeared him to so many who have come into contact with him, not least his loyal followers, bolstered by deracinated youth, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, who have lost hope in the promise of democracy. He represented that ubiquitous underclass, largely excluded by the gains of democracy, for whom he instituted social grants. JZ was, and still remains, their man, rising from very little to the very top, all the while being part of them.

Hopefully, this will be a time of catharsis and healing – dealing with the demons that interfere with judgment that puts people and country above self. He will grapple with the desire to present a better historical narrative, to triumph over his appalling plight, the abandonment by his erstwhile comrades, many of whom benefited from his accession to the highest office in the land, and latterly seek redemption. Without rancour, JZ can be true to that inner voice which can set the record straight, reducing the burden he carries. Revealing what he knows, opening the files on those who were compromised during apartheid and those who are compromised now. Thus will he come to terms with himself, his supporters and the country.

This lowest point in his life will also result in much reflection, without the distraction of fawning and mediocre advisers, who were alert to and exploited his vulnerabilities. This Aristotelian tragic hero was nurtured in a culture of increasing feckless disdain for the largely silent majority, who continue to be taken for granted. Previous white entitlement was imitated, power was assumed as a right, accountability was a swear word. The ethos of self-serving arguments, defiling the precept of “the people shall govern” trotted out by mediocrity, has harmed the noble quest for liberation, underpinning the fatal flaw in this hero’s tragic predicament.

South Africa deserves better, his supporters deserve better, so that his considerable contributions may rise above any clamouring need to deny what brought him to this abasement. JZ can go down in history for helping all of us to honestly be part of the difficult journey of leaving our ugly and traumatic past behind, paving the way for us to find one another in the journey to a South Africa freed from its terrible bondage. Will he?

* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner, who was jailed for nine years with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He is also Past President International Union of Psychological Science, a Board Member South African Broadcasting Corporation, President Pan-African Psychology Union, Extraordinary Prof University of Pretoria and Visiting Prof University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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