Leadership Lessons from Zuma’s Resignation

South Africa awoke today with the news that President Jacob Zuma has resigned. For most South Africans, it’s a feeling of a decision long overdue and good riddance. For others, it’s a compassionate reaction of sadness, aggh shame, emotion and not a nice way to see uBaba go.

Where did it go wrong?

I remember in 2006-2007, whilst on a strategic planning session with a management team near the Kruger National Park – during an evening social, the topic of contemporary SA politics would ensue. One Mozambican colleague hedged a bet, “Zuma will be the ANC party president and eventual president of South Africa!” The rest of us, including myself, thought that was ridiculous. He was just a non-South African wishing the worst for us; and we knew better. We thought Zuma is a man facing so many charges and controversy – from Shabir Shaik found guilty and him being complicit to the #Khwezi rape charge to being an axed deputy president. Surely South African politics won’t fall for such a leader. He’s history. We were flatly wrong.

What was wrong, and went wrong, with Jacob Zuma?

  1. Never hire an incompetent leader

The ANC placed Zuma’s experience, fighting apartheid, going to prison and his influence/ charm above qualification, competence and entry ability for the presidency. Ironically, yesterday – some commentators would insist that we put academics in leadership. That’s a debate for another day. Let’s accept: a leader should have the competence required to do the job. Zuma’s incompetence would eventually cost South Africans so much (likely no president in the world who has faced as many legal court battles and costs), let alone what we can only speculate in ‘opportunity costs’.

  1. Never hire a leader with dubious and questionable character flaws (that’s more important)

We knew this intuitively from day one about Zuma. Didn’t we? In his book, A Simple Man, Ronnie Kasrils asserts that “Zuma was a flawed man before his corruption claims and rape trial”. His close political allies chose to not believe #Khwezi. Today, they have used her name for their own political ends. Zuma headed the Anti-AIDS and Moral Regeneration Campaign. In 2010, he would impregnate his friend’s (Ivan Khoza) 39-year-old daughter – out of marriage. The company he keeps – much will be said of his links to the Guptas, Roy Moodley and those with financial influence. Allegations of #StateCapture, it’s extent, impact and those guilty are yet to unfold.

Character is not just courage. Zuma has this in some part I would argue. With or without power, integrity and trust seems a vacuum for him.

  1. Followers make a leader

The ANC who put and kept Zuma in power created ‘him’, or some would say a monster. A leader is nothing without people who agree, support and grant him or her that power. Can we speculate how many corrupt ministers planted corrupt ideas in his impressionable mind and easy-going character? Perhaps he is a victim – the smart put a dummy in, so they could benefit.  Still, SA voted him into the presidency twice. A majority is not always right. A nation bankrupt in information, knowledge, education, facts, conscience, morals, enlightenment, clear thinking – always puts a compromised, flawed character in power. From Zimbabwe and their Mugabe (finally gone) to the USA and Trump.


  1. “Even if you disagree with your leaders, you should never criticize them”

This is a telltale of religious cults and extremist groups. Obedience, subservience, don’t think – just do, follow, hero worship and herd mentality are synonymous with desperate groups and organisations.

At some point in Zuma’s presidency, with the split of two camps in the ANC – one camp felt the above, and another didn’t. Until the ANC Conference, both camps would follow the party line obediently however. Once power shifted, voicing dissent became okay. That’s most politicians for you: being sure of their salary, position, perks and privileges.

Ironically, Zuma would eventually criticize his party’s decision to recall him: “I disagree and will not resign”. He then did.

  1. Never underestimate your enemy/ Beware of who you exit out of your organisation

Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande were some who persuaded for Zuma being the ANC president in 2008. From #KillforZuma #HandsOffZuma to eventually #ZumaMustFall and #ZumaMustGo. The same lot who put him there would persuade for his resignation. Malema, in particular, has exceeded expectation of power and influence. From rough ANC Youth League President kicked out, to a red overalls party, to being willing to become educated, an example to the youth, picking their key spots of “economic freedom”, leveraging their need of most SA’s – land and poverty, getting himself into shape/ physical fitness, unafraid to make parliament rethink how they deal with a new breed… if only Zuma knew, if only he was a better listener, a better diplomat.

  1. In chess strategy, checks are warning signs, check mate is the element of surprise realization

Jacob Zuma faced eight #NoConfidence votes. He always won. In other words, eight “checks” in chess – and he always had a move to slip away. At 15:00 on the 14th of February, in my opinion, he threw a wild card of hope. “Lament, complain, divulge the inside happenings, play the victim” in an SABC exclusive interview/ monologue. Perhaps he thought, he could slip out of this one. He threw his last lifeline: “I will today make an announcement later”. Perhaps he thought his ANC comrades who owe him, would step up.

An unpunctual, typical Zuma would eventually get South Africans guessing once he started his speech. Will he resign, or will he resist and defy? The possibility of having his own party vote with the opposition, the humiliation, his open defiance, the possibility of losing post presidential perks and benefits were too much. Check mate, Mr President. Gone. Bye. Finally.

The leadership lessons of Zuma’s resignation are many more:

  • Ego is a bad thing
  • Listen to the people
  • Honour your oath office, be true, remain clean, have integrity, be accountable
  • Your actions may not just be immoral, unethical, unfair but criminal
  • Keep learning, keep growing, keep seeking self-awareness

And perhaps the most ironic: “What goes around, comes around. As you sow, so shall you reap.” What he presided over Mbeki in 2008, is the same fate he would be eventually dealt with.


Anil Salick

Anil Salick

Strategist, Facilitator, Coach, Writer. Shares about inspiration, leadership, critical thinking, fun, sports and current events.