23/11/2017 06:21 SAST | Updated 23/11/2017 09:07 SAST

Will Jacob Zuma Go Like Nelson Mandela Or Like Robert Mugabe?

It’s up to the choices he makes in the next few months.

President Jacob Zuma.
Rogan Ward / Reuters
President Jacob Zuma.

I have wondered through this momentous week what President Jacob Zuma made of events in Zimbabwe. What did he think of as first the army and then the governing party Zanu-PF turned the screws on the liberation leader with whom Zuma often walks with twisted pinkies in a symbol of comradely and brotherly love?

Did Zuma see that he could go the same way? And what did our president think last night as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, the rest of Africa and the world at large stopped to celebrate Mugabe's exit? Has the logic of accumulation so come to define Zuma that he failed to make sense of the lessons that Mugabe's political end holds for him?

Howard Burditt / Reuters
President's Nelson Mandela of South Africa (L) and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe talk together May 21, 1997 as he was leaving the country after a three day state visit. Mandela opened a World Economic Forum on the southern African region to improve investment and trade within the region. REUTERS/Howard Burditt ZIMBABWE MANDELA

When Nelson Mandela died, his story was defined by snaking queues of love as people first gathered in spontaneous crowds outside his Johannesburg home where he had died. Then we queued again, for hours and hours, to walk past his coffin and pay our final respects. We queued as we had queued to vote peacefully in the 1994 election crafted by a team of the wise, strategic and pragmatic marshalled by Mandela.

We cried crocodile tears for Mandela who stepped down after a single term in office. As more and more African leaders eschew term limits and contort constitutions to stay in power, his decision to step down early is more remarkable viewed through contemporary history's prism.

As the BBC's Milton Nkosi noted on Tuesday night, you can go like Mandela or you can go like Mugabe. Mugabe also went like Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the Libyan brother leader Muammar Gadaffi -- toppled unceremoniously amid the ululation and joy of their people.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (L) smiles as she is greeted by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe next to South Africa's president Jacob Zuma ahead of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg June 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Comparisons between South Africa and Zimbabwe can often be facile. In democratic South Africa, we have changed presidents four times while Mugabe is the only post-independence leader most of his people have known. Although Canaan Banana was the ceremonial president of a post-independence Zimbabwe, Mugabe has always been the power.

South Africans are much more inclined to challenge and protest and this national quality has pushed the Zuma administration into a largely defensive mode. There is little chance the South African leader would attempt to stay on in office or that we will need the army to prod either him or a future autocrat from office. South African civil society is much too tjatajrag (cheeky and obstreperous) for that and it gets more so every day as people stage a low-intensity war against bad leaders.

There was something very old-Africa about the way Mugabe was prodded from office with the gentle nudge of an army tank -- it was a soft coup and a bloodless one but it is no blueprint for South Africa.

Where there are lessons Zuma may heed is in the role of Zanu-PF, which wrote Mugabe's final exit ticket. By recalling him, Zanu-PF paved the way for impeachment if its president had continued to try to tough it out with his loyal inner circle.

The ANC top power structure, the national executive committee, is finely balanced between loyalists and opponents of the scandal-prone Zuma. If the scales tip in favour of his opponents' camp at the party's national conference in December, a recall for Zuma is quite likely. If the faction that has empathy with Zuma wins out, he will stay in office until 2019.

But, either way, if Zuma continues to push through big deals through a mix of Cabinet loyalists and his family dynasty, like the late-term kleptocrats of old Africa, he may face a Mugabe-style exit.

Or, in a better case scenario, he could draw on the lessons of his political senior, Mandela: to know when to go.