A few months ago, author William Gumede described Zuma as someone with a narcissistic personality disorder — a set of traits defined by Austrian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut as “including an exaggerated sense of superiority, a lack of self-awareness about the impact of their behaviour and having a disdain for others, who they devalue to validate their own grandiosity”. These people lack empathy, have a distorted sense of reality and are incapable of seeing anything from anyone else’s perspective. Narcissists like Zuma, Gumede argues, can’t accept responsibility and don’t care if they take down entire countries with them. The events at Nkandla, sadly for Zuma, only reinforced that perspective.
LONDON — Whether under its erstwhile white rulers or since then,South Africa has never liked to see itself in any way as run-of-the-mill, preferring to cast itself as aloof from the corruption, strife and misrule so often associated with the continent to its north.
And, after the country’s fully democratic election in 1994, the towering presence of Nelson Mandela shed a glow of moral superiority: not only had Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his beliefs, but, finally, the continent could now look forward to what Thabo Mbeki, his successor, called an African Renaissance.
In more recent times, South Africans have come to a different, almost heretical conclusion: under its newest coterie of the powerful around President Jacob Zuma, their land has lost its claim to the moral high ground.
Rarely has that conclusion been expressed more forcefully than in recent days when Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, a Nobel Peace laureate once at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, issued his sharpest yet denunciation of the government, comparing it pejoratively with its apartheid predecessor.
“Mr. Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me,” he told a news conference, protesting the authorities’ failure to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, whom the archbishop had invited to his 80th birthday party.
“You represent your own interests. I am warning you out of love, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the A.N.C. government,” he said, referring by its initials to the governing African National Congress, which casts itself as the custodian of the nation’s moral aspirations as much as the core its political legitimacy.
The archbishop’s remarks provoked some sharp reactions. “In the scheme of things, who is Bishop Tutu? A prelate who was won honors because he raised his voice against apartheid? Who did not?” said Thula Bopela, a veteran of the A.N.C.’s military struggle against apartheid.
But the exchange reflected a more insidious malaise. The authorities’ delay in issuing a visa for the Dalai Lama, which forced him to cancel the birthday visit, was broadly interpreted as a genuflection to the power of China, South Africa’s biggest trading partner, with whom it struck a $2.5 billion investment deal even as the Dalai Lama’s visa application was — in theory at least — under consideration.
South Africa, moreover, has joined the relatively new economic and political grouping Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa), preferring to align itself with emergent powers rather what are seen as declining established powers in the West.
“Let me state categorically that our foreign policy is independent and decisions are informed by the national interest,” Mr. Zuma said Thursday in a foreign policy address. “We look at what is of benefit to the South African people, and what will advance our domestic priorities at that given time. We are not dictated to by other countries, individuals or lobby group interests within our own country.”
But, for a land that cast itself as moral beacon against tyranny, South Africa has adopted a particular prism for its foreign policy, blending its debts to those who supported it in the liberation struggle, a suspicion of Western influence and a hard-nosed pragmatism.
“It must be noted that there is a way that the way in which the A.N.C. regime resembles the one it succeeded, by deciding to take sides with the oppressor, in this case China,” Dr. R. Simangaliso Kumalo, the head of the School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, listing a catalog of occasions when Pretoria seemed to side with dictators like President Robert G. Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
As Libyans rose up against Colonel Qaddafi, for instance, South Africa initially supported a U.N. resolution authorizing NATO intervention, but Mr. Zuma later promoted a parallel and unsuccessful African effort to create some kind of compromise, shielding the Libyan strongman in what, to some, looked like payback for generous financial support in the past from Tripoli.
On Thursday, Mr. Zuma complained that the initiative “was not given space to implement its road map and to ensure an African solution to the Libyan question.” South Africa’s foreign policy, he insisted, “is an extension of our domestic policy and our value system.”
But others had already come to a different conclusion.
“It is clear to me that we do not have a moral foreign policy,” the political analyst Eusebius McKaiser said in a lecture in August, discussing South Africa’s role in the Libya conflict. “There is little indication that our foreign policy is consistently and genuinely informed by a thorough commitment to project our domestic constitutional principles onto the international arena.”
Indeed, those principles — or the threats to them — lie at the center of the debate. Two years after their first free election in 1994, South Africans created a new constitution guaranteeing rights that much of Africa had shunned, ignored or undermined and seeming to lock the land onto the moral coordinates of its struggle for democracy.
But the ground has shifted. Corruption and patronage have replaced principle and promised transparency. “Nothing anybody says or does can be taken at face value any longer, because we suspect this can only be explained if one understands what the doer or speaker wants to achieve in terms of his or her factional interest,” said Max du Preez, a journalist and author.
South Africa’s revolution, wrote the author Njabulo S. Ndebele, “may itself have become corrupted by the attractions of instant wealth,” reflecting “a potentially catastrophic collapse in the once cohesive understanding of the post-apartheid project as embodied in our constitution.”
The A.N.C., he said, “functions as a state within the state, and it thinks it is the state” — hardly the stuff of an exception, let alone a renaissance.