Julius Malema and President Jacob Zuma share a laugh in 2008 when they were still playing for the same side. Picture: THE TIMES
Julius Malema and President Jacob Zuma share a laugh in 2008 when they were still playing for the same side. Picture: THE TIMES

SEARCH far enough back into the dusty virtual library of postdemocratic South African politics and there, on a shelf marked "April 1994", you will find the following, long-forgotten sentiment from President Jacob Zuma: "I’d like to retire from active politics at the next election. I’ll be 57. A cottage by the sea, with the waves lapping, would be wonderful. I love the sea."

Zuma didn’t retire after the next election, nor the next. His second term as president ends in 2019 and he says he won’t be standing for a third. He will be 77 years old then, by which time he will have added 20 long years to his political lifespan.

But it is not his ambition alone that has ballooned during that time. The cottage by the sea has become a R250m extravagance, funded by public money and the nexus for so much subterfuge and outrage in turn.

As a result of Nkandla, whether Zuma will see out his second term is the question burning a hole into the back of the South African mind. To no avail. As in 1994, the information is not available.

"Believe we’re gliding down the highway," sing Simon and Garfunkel, "when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away." That’s Zuma for you. He was quoted recently as saying, "They are happy with the president."

He has a knack for talking about himself in the third person when the subject is a tricky one. In December 2014 he said about Nkandla: "The reality is, the president did absolutely nothing wrong. There is not a single (report) that found anything wrong that the president had done."

Reality is not a close friend of the president. In his words, and those crafted for him, it is indeed a golden highway of sorts.

Before the Constitutional Court, his advocate said last week: "It will be wrong if this court makes a ruling which may result in a call for impeachment" — the inevitable consequence were that court to find Zuma had deliberately violated the supreme law of the land that he so frequently champions abroad.

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WHETHER the people are happy with Zuma is next to impossible to say. His party managed 62% in the last election, hardly an indictment. But individual personality and political party are difficult to separate in South African politics.

And, with regards to the African National Congress (ANC) in particular, come election day, that all-powerful hive mind inevitably subsumes all. The ANC and its record in government is a free-floating idea: it is simultaneously "good news" and unmitigated disaster, depending on who is telling the story.

And yet, for all that, you cannot help but get the sense something, surely, is slip slidin’ away.

SA is a dreamscape of sorts. Ideals and ugliness pass by each other all the time — nightmares and fantasies. Separating things set in stone from things built on sand is confusing.

Many of those things that appeared for so long to stand firm now creak under the weight of neglect and decay. The public mind is consumed by doubt. An air of ambiguity has seeped into everything.

We question not just who we are, but who we wish to be. Amid all that suspicion, identity politics has augmented its position as a pre-eminent force.

And the calls for leadership, how they reverberate daily. Who will lead us? Where have all the leaders gone? Nelson Mandela has been dragged down into the mess — his reputation, once invulnerable, now questioned and doubted.

No politician should be sacred. But we need our gods in SA — it’s how we can tell who the devil is. No more. In purgatory you don’t know whether you are headed up or down.

Zuma’s nemesis, the angel he cast from heaven, now haunts him daily. Francis Bacon said revenge was a kind of wild justice. Under the guise of justice, Julius Malema is wild indeed. If he ever closes the grip he has on the president’s throat, you can be sure he will waste no time throttling the political life from him.

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IS MALEMA a devil or god? There is a strong case to be made that he embodies the politics of Zuma taken to its ultimate conclusion. Yet he fights on the side of the angels, we are told.

Certainly, he avoids much of the scrutiny afforded the president’s every move. Perhaps, as ever, we should reward Malema with some real power. That will focus the mind. In the meantime, he, much like the ANC, is whatever we want him to be, depending on who is telling the story.

In the background, earnest and well-meaning, is the official opposition — the ostensible voice of reason in all this chaos. Reason doesn’t resonate today. And so it too has taken to drinking the Kool-Aid on occasion.

Desperately caught between some fading idea of what it is and some imagined idea of what it should be, it fumbles along, trying to set an agenda by reacting to the agenda of others.

The truth is, as the song goes, "God only knows, God makes his plan." The private thinking of the president is the information that drives South African debate forward. And not so much with regards his personal crises, but in all aspects of South African life.

Zuma has transformed SA, not into a failed state, but into something far worse — an ambiguous one. All options are on the table and every one of them is interrogated and indulged in equal measure, all of them utterly dependent upon his next move.

The remarkable thing about Zuma’s 1994 sentiment is not the relative humility of it, but its absolute meaninglessness — just words, a glimpse into some possible fantasy.

He has these sorts of ideas all the time, and in a world without ideals, they seem to be the thread our fate follows.

There is a thin line between fate and fatalism.

Unless someone is able to break free of the hold Zuma has over us, able to imagine a different reality, whether by design or chance, his fantasies will continue to define our political circumstance.