Character is best gauged under pressure. It’s the stress tests that determine whether the raw material is carbon, that may be squeezed into diamond, or mud that, at best, will become compacted dirt.
A decade ago, at Jacob Zuma’s moment of greatest triumph when he engineered the recall of Thabo Mbeki as president, he was ruthless and vengeful.
Subsequently, his track record as democratic SA’s fourth president showed him to be cunning, racist and shamelessly corrupt.
Now, the manner of his departure provides evidence of not a single trait to mitigate that bleak assessment.
Backed into a corner by his party, Zuma’s only alternatives were impeachment or a resignation forced by a vote of no confidence.
His first public response was a delusional, self-pitying ramble on national television. He would not resign because it was all “very unfair”.
He had done nothing wrong and the ANC had not given reasons why he should go.
There was also a veiled threat. He warned of a “crisis”, that “some people will not like this”, and that if the ANC leadership were not careful, there would be “problems”.
The attempts to remove him might result in “violence”.
But by late Wednesday evening, threatened defiance had wilted in the face of imminent humiliation.
Fortuitously, the envoys shuttling between the ANC’s national executive and Zuma were the party’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, and his deputy, Jessie Duarte. Both, until just weeks ago, were Zuma’s closest allies.
Faced with the choice of resigning or being evicted by the virtually unanimous vote of his erstwhile comrades, Zuma backed down.
And as to be expected of the man who proudly proclaimed the ANC constitution to be more important than the South African one, it was party, not national interests that changed his mind.
“No life should be wasted in my name. The ANC should never be divided in my name. I have therefore come to the decision to resign with immediate effect,” he said piously.
This is the second president recalled by the ANC before the end of their office. Mbeki was evicted with just months of his second term to run.
Zuma has been forced out, in turn, by his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, with at least a year in hand.
But although the events echo one another, the manner in which the protagonists behaved could not be more different.
Mbeki, who showed no sign of resisting the Zuma faction’s policy agenda, was treated with pettiness and spite.
In contrast, Ramaphosa has been almost fawning in the respect he has shown Zuma. Whatever Mbeki’s failings, he departed the presidential stage with dignity.
Zuma, in contrast, displayed all the dignity of a wretched convict being dragged to the gallows.
The giddy joy that Zuma’s departure has unleashed in public forums is a measure of how despised he has become.
Even those shadowy groups created specifically to support him, like the Black First Land First movement, were strangely muted in their response.
It will take years to strain out the toxins.
It will take enormous leadership from a party that at best tolerated his behaviour, at worst aided and abetted it.
Whether Ramaphosa is the diamond in the dirt remains to be tested.