A psychological take on Zuma’s refusal to go

  • JordanNotlettinggo
Former president Jacob Zuma dug in his heels, refusing to give an inch despite the leadership of his party, the ANC, making it clear his time in office was up. So, why did he persist in staying put?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Feb 15, 2018

Besides the obvious reasons – he didn’t want to lose his grip on power; to have to face the myriad charges against him without having easy access to high-brow lawyers and easy access to the public purse  – there’s also a psychological element to his conduct. 

Psychologist Dr Dorianne Weil attributes part of his behaviour to the way his mind works and how he perceives himself. 

Weil, a clinical and organisational psychologist with 25 years’ experience, unpacks Zuma’s psyche and tries to explain his defiant behaviour over the past fortnight. 

She explains that Zuma was in denial: “Denial is one of the mind’s most useful defence mechanisms. Although it is meant to help protect a person from a difficult reality, when excessively used it can be destructive as it prevents engagement with reality.”

In Zuma’s case, his behaviour was perhaps best understood as an effort to protect his sense of identity. “In order to avoid thoughts of not being good enough and displaying any signs of weakness and incompetence, a person in his position latches onto any other part of the situation that confirms what he want to believe,” she says.

“In Zuma’s case, agreeing to resign would contradict his sense of self.”

She explains that the same understanding may apply in the stand-off between Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille and her party, the DA. Following allegations of maladministration in the city council levelled against her last year by the party, De Lille was called on to resign as mayor. Fellow DA caucus members sought to bring a motion of no confidence against her, resolving to convene a special sitting this week to debate the vote.

De Lille has agreed to step down, but has committed herself to clearing her name of any wrongdoing before doing so. For this reason, she applied on Tuesday to have the motion voted on by secret ballot in order to ensure that the DA caucus members could vote according to their conscience. 

Weil says De Lille’s actions are understandable. “Actions are geared towards the protection of the ideal image of the self and to deflect any forces which challenge that.”

This type of behaviour is used to defend the ego, she says. 

Weil suggests that people who have a secure ego can act objectively by admitting mistakes, asking for help and addressing their shortcomings. But when the ego is fragile, facing reality is almost impossible and all problems are dealt with in a self-centred way. 

The ego that Zuma was defending is far from flattering in the eyes of the public, contrary to what he might think. Clearly, his determination to avoid the humiliation of resigning has backfired. “When Mbeki heeded the signs and stood up, he came across with humility, making the country more important than him,” says Weil.

This display of humility and authenticity made the public warm to him, she adds. 

It is clear that denial and resistance can be dealt with in various ways, given the different leadership responses to Zuma and De Lille. DA leader Mmusi Maimane lamented the ongoing standoff between the DA and De Lille, saying the vote on her future must be decisive. 

In addressing Zuma’s resignation, ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa seems committed, but has proceeded slowly through multiple meetings and negotiations. “There’s no one recipe for dealing with individuals who are in denial.”

Weil stresses the role played by people around the leader in denial, saying they often want to be buffers. “Like the leader, they cannot minimise or deny the significance of psychological behaviour. Failure to do so will cause those in power to persist in such behaviour, which will eventually end in destruction.” 

However, the power to address resistance ultimately lies with the person experiencing it. “Like so many others, I had hoped that Ramaphosa would broker a compromise for the greater good. However, Zuma’s psychological mechanisms are preventing any progress from being made,” she says. 


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