Book Review — The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw

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This morning I finished Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers — Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison. Jacques was a journalist for one of South Africa’s biggest newspapers.

The book is a chronicle of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma’s corrupt presidency in South Africa and the people who closed ranks to ensure he was not prosecuted for a lot of the scandalous dealings of himself, his family and those close to him. The book had been completed in 2017 before Zuma resigned in the face of a motion of no confidence in the parliament in 2018.

I had read about Zuma’s presidency from a couple of articles from the South African and international media, and my perception of him was already poor before I picked up the President’s Keepers, yet it went many notches lower after I finished Jacques’ book.

This is a man who before he ascended presidency in 2009 raped the daughter of a fellow ‘anti-apartheid’ comrade with whom he shared a prison with on Robben Island. When asked about the charge, Zuma said it was consensual because he interpreted the cloth she was wearing as an invitation for sex. To make things worse, Zuma said he knew the lady concerned was HIV-positive but that he took a shower immediately after to minimise the risk of contracting the disease.

As the trial took place, Zuma’s supporters flooded the Johannesburg High Court with posters that said “Burn the bitch” and “100% Zulu boy”. After Zuma was acquainted in controversial circumstances, the lady and her mother were hounded out of the country after Zuma supporters burned down their home.

#NewWordAlert Annus maximus horribilis | brown-nose

Zuma would later apologise for the defilement of a comrade’s offspring, but no worries, a few years later he procreated with another friend’s daughter.

For perspective, Zuma has 4 legal wives and 22 legitimate children. I was amused to have one of my theories about polygamy play out: one of his wives attempted to poison him, per Russian Intelligence sources, and was banished from the family home.

That aside, even in the mid-2000s Zuma was fighting for his political survival and standing trial on 783 charges of fraud, racketeering and corruption. The case emanated from bribes that he had received from arms manufacturers during South Africa’s controversial arms deal of the 1990s and 2000s. The money was paid to Zuma’s financier and banker, Schabir Shaik, who in turn paid it over to Zuma according to records.

But how could someone like Zuma have become a President in the first place? It lies in the monopoly of ANC as a political party. African National Party has been ruling South Africa since the election of Nelson Mandela in the 1994 election. Perhaps the most important political word in South Africa is ‘anti-apartheid comrade’.

If you were part of the apartheid struggle, then you are gold. Zuma was the head of intelligence of the anti-apartheid struggle and despite being uneducated was able to skill himself in the art of neutralising traitors and incapacitating opponents.

ANC considers that when someone has been as useful as this in the past, his other sins do not matter, for even Mandela was said to have identified Zuma early on as a financial “problem child” and had attempted to “discipline” him about his financial conduct.

It also helped that Zuma is politically sagacious. It is said that Zuma is a man that is difficult not to like. His charm and geniality are widely considered and no wonder he is often referred to as the “people’s politician”. As he became financially reckless and cash-starved with bad credit records, an astute bank official was said to have warmed up to him because “Zuma is likely to be elected South Africa’s deputy”.

Even when he was fired by President Thabo Mbeki as deputy president and became cash-starved with bad credit records, he played the political game so ardently that he was still able to extract money and favours on a habitual basis from a host of benefactors who included not just his financial adviser but also a host of business people including Nelson Mandela.

#DoYouKnow Askaris — captured ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) guerrillas who were “turned” into killer cops.

A major part of the book was spent on events during Zuma’s presidency. How he turned the once efficient South African Revenue Service (SARS) upside down. SARS is a post-apartheid success story of the Mandela through to Mbeki’s eras. Once the inefficient and clumsy Inland Revenue Service and a separate Customs and Excise department, it was remodeled into a mean tax-collecting and customs machine to serve as the engine driving South Africa’s social democracy, including the funding of over 17 million grants to more than 10 million people every month. Its transformation has been chronicled in at least two international business school journals.

Zuma had always been dogged by his lack of tax accountability. In South Africa, since 1994, under President Nelson Mandela, it was decided that the president, his cabinet and all elected public officials should be subject to income tax. But Zuma bucked that trend. According to the author, he didn’t, and failed to submit a tax return for his first year in office. This was no exception. He didn’t submit a tax return for the second year, either. Or the third or the fourth.

There was also the matter of his magnificent private home, Nkandla, built with taxpayers’ money. Even worse, it was discovered that while running the affairs of his country, Zuma was also an employee of a private company, collecting monthly salaries. Eventually, he ensured that the top men at SARS who were on his neck to pay his taxes got booted out.

Zuma’s cronies are numerous. There are several. Among them were the Gupta brothers, originally from India, who were literally handed the keys to South Africa’s economy. In one head-shaking event, the very police unit that accused a Zuma crony of corruption, and recommended a full-scale investigation, appointed the same man as an agent. Several cases of men without experience appointed into important positions of government, and they in turn took to bringing their relatives. One man who was appointed into a key position in the intelligence service brought in his wife, son, daughter, brother, niece and two of his girlfriends. None of them had any intelligence experience.

#TSD Julius Malena, the firebrand activist is not the model citizen you may think him to be. His battles with SARS was well documented.

All these said, let’s be frank, as a Nigerian reading this book, I do not consider the revelations in this book fantastic and grotesque at all in comparison to what obtains in Nigeria. Many of my countrymen will come to the same conclusions after reading. Politicians are hounded to pay their taxes in South Africa? Oh please.

The author was shocked to hear Zuma say that ‘ANC will rule until the coming of Christ.’ I doubt he’s heard of PDP and their famous claim?

A police commissioner got an Audi A5 as a gift and then returned the keys and resigned when it became public knowledge. In Nigeria?

Four of South Africa’s biggest banks closed the accounts of arguably Zuma’s biggest ally because of corruption charges. In Nigeria?

And of course Nigeria always shows up in these discussions. A Durban businessmen gave a lecture on wealth creation in a Christian summit. The strategy he said he got from God? Find Nigerian politicians and bankroll their election costs. In his words, “So, what did I do? I put my foot in. When the guy came to power, my second foot in. When he takes his office, my whole body is in.”

A few misgivings about the book:

It’s obvious the book was written for South Africans. It was difficult to convert some of the figures to Naira to know how much the sleaze being talked was in international currency. Books like this need to have some of the main figures in dollars, even if in bracket, so it is easy to convert to any local currency for context.

It is also evident what deep resentment Jacques has for Jacob Zuma, yet an investigative journalist is an investigative journalist. Using words like ‘nonsense’ and especially ‘bullshit’ — he used this at least four times — detracts from the message. We expect him to simply outline his points and leave the reader to make up her mind, not use curse words to sway our allegiance. Emotions should go to the back.

The book also became tedious and boring to read at some point, I say about 50% of the way. We get it: Zuma is a corrupt and a terrible man. A point he made over and over again, as he swings the characters in the storyline so back and forth that you can’t help but sigh at his repetition.

No doubt he did a yeoman’s job with the research collecting so many information and materials for the book. Perhaps the attempt to ensure all of them appear in the book made him draw out the chapters explaining every detail of his encounters and how his information was obtained. At the end there were simply too many names, too many groups, too many threads for the reader to remember.

I believe every South African should read this book for it chronicles the presidency of someone whom I consider the reference point for the decline of the modern South African nation.

For the rest of us, my recommendation is that if you are short on time but long on your book list, this review may be sufficient. I suffered till the end for you not … ☺

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