President Jacob Zuma knows he is in trouble. He doesn't need the media, his acolytes or his enemies to tell him that. And he's reaching for the get-out-of-jail-free cards that have served him so well previously when he finds himself in a corner. This past week he once again returned to his "I'm not afraid of going to jail" trope. It is a variation on a theme we first saw during his corruption and rape trials, and the pre-Polokwane campaign to finally defeat former president Thabo Mbeki to the ANC presidency.
Earlier this month, whilst speaking in kwaDumbe in northern KwaZulu-Natal, he accused his detractors of trying to destroy the ANC by attacking him, saying: "I have spent a lot of time in jail. I am not scared of jail, I have been there."
The City Press reported that over the last few days, he's delivered that message at a series of loyalist rallies — or cadre forums — where he's mounted a counterattack after a series of legal and political defeats in 2016. His message: he's the victim of a conspiracy of the corrupt, the ANC is under attack from foreign powers and are using their local lackeys to attack him, his detractors are evil, and true party members will close ranks around him to protect the integrity of the party.
Sound familiar? Remember eight years back when he said: "Prison does not scare me. I have previously spent time in jail"?
In 2008, before the corruption charges had been tossed out, he proclaimed outside of a high court: "Those who know me will know that I am not a coward. I have never been afraid of anything... I was willing to die for this country and I am prepared to die for it."
Now, as then, he hopes that paranoia will encourage as many ANC members as possible to rally around him in order to protect the party. It worked in the run-up to the 2007 national conference of the ANC, where he deposed Mbeki, to the surprise of many. The crucial difference is that key allies from that campaign — the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party — are less keen on helping him. In fact, some unions and ANC branches are calling for him to go.
With fewer allies this time around, and a tumult of court cases against him hampering him from using state power to aid his case, he's remembered the tactics that served him so well the last time he looked like he was in a hopeless position. He is the great survivor after all, and these are the ploys that earned him that nom de guerre.
Currently faced with a judicial commission of inquiry to follow up on the public protector's state report, a Constitutional Court-backed return of the 783 charges, an eroding support base and an increasingly irate public, he is cornered with very few good options left.
If you grew up around the Thukela valley, where Nkandla is located, you might have heard men singing the "Ngeke Ngiphawule" tune, favoured amongst isiZulu-speaking migrant workers. Someone recorded this being sung by prisoners. "Ngiyalesaba ijele [I am terrified of prison]," one of the singing prisoners croons.
Make no mistake: with the threat of prison hanging over his head, Zuma has returned to the tactics of a man fighting very hard.