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It’s easy to look at South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma and think: he’s just an opportunist. There’s his lovely new homestead Nkandla, upgraded largely at taxpayers’ expense, with its famous fire pool” (for security, not for swimming, Zuma insists). There’s his belief that his African National Congress should rule South Africa long beyond Wednesday’s elections – “until Jesus comes”, as he said in 2009.

Zuma is indeed an opportunist. But he’s not just that. He genuinely believes that he is entitled to Nkandla, and the ANC to South Africa. That’s because the party liberated the country. From China to Zimbabwe to Cuba, self-proclaimed “liberators” seldom quit. Here’s why the ANC will reign for ages yet.

The liberator’s psychology is no longer well understood because most liberators from the 1947-1968 wave of decolonisation died off long ago. Only in southern Africa, where liberation happened later, and in Cuba, where the Castros discovered the recipe for eternal youth, can you still see actual liberators roaming the earth.

Imagine the liberator returning from the bush, says the South African writer Mark Gevisser. To liberate his country, he has sacrificed his safety, home and family. (Zimbabwe’s liberator Robert Mugabe, in a British jail when his toddler son died of malaria, wasn’t allowed out for the funeral.) The struggle marks the liberator for ever. The late Ethiopian liberator Meles Zenawi actually changed his name from Legesse to Meles to honour a dead fellow struggler.

Typically, the liberator is penniless when he takes power. He’s lucky the presidential palace comes rent-free. But like any returning émigré made good, he has relatives and friends demanding goodies, says Gevisser. In the liberator’s poor country, a politician can’t earn much legally. And so he has to take a kickback on the tender. Anyway, his country owes it to him.

That’s the crucial point about liberators. A South African minister (quoted in an American WikiLeaks cable) called Mugabe a “crazy old man” but, in fact, Mugabe just feels owed. Douglas Rogers, in his Zimbabwean memoir The Last Resort, explains how the country’s leaders think: “They had suffered, sacrificed, seen comrades killed . . . They had earned a privilege that those who never fought – Morgan Tsvangirai, for example – could never have: the right to rule.” Zuma, who spent boring, hungry, dangerous years in prison and exile, feels the same right. So does Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, a hero of the 1989 revolution. The parallel, sometimes drawn explicitly by Zuma’s supporters, is with Christ’s suffering: the liberator redeemed us with his blood. He can therefore ignore whatever voters think. Anyone who doesn’t like him is an enemy of the people.

The claim to be a liberator is, incidentally, often dubious. Rana Mitter shows in China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945 that the Chinese communists didn’t actually fight the Japanese nearly as much as they claimed. Likewise, Zuma’s bit of the ANC, the ineffectual exiled “armed wing”, did little to end apartheid, argues Stephen Ellis, author of External Mission, on the exiled ANC. No matter, says Mitter: after these groups gained power, they excised rival liberators (Joshua Nkomo in Zimbabwe, Chiang Kai-shek in China) from the liberation story.

Many liberators never stop liberating their countries. The old foreign enemies are always hovering: Mugabe is forever ranting about British “homosexuals”; the Cuban regime’s sole international appeal became anti-Americanism; and China recently seized a Japanese ship as payment for a prewar debt.

The liberator-ruler keeps acting out the role of liberated person. As Gevisser sees it, the liberator tells the people: “I am your liberator, I am you. You were in chains, I was in chains. You are liberated, I am liberated. I am living your experience.” That works, says Gevisser, until the Nkandla moment, where the liberator says, “I am rich, you are – errr.” It’s the moment in Orwell’s Animal Farm when the animals peer through the windows at the pigs and men having a feast together.

At that moment, “the people” (as the liberators call them) start turning off. This happened, for instance, to India’s Nehru-Gandhi liberating dynasty, which will probably lose the present elections to non-liberator Narendra Modi.

Yet a liberator can usually keep power as long as he keeps the economy ticking over without stealing too much. The Chinese Communist party has managed that, and today some grandchildren of Mao Zedong’s 1930s comrades are senior Chinese officials. (Liberation etiquette gives “struggle veterans” first dibs at power, but after that the hereditary principle usually applies.) The ANC too has achieved passable economic growth, shrewdly putting its best people in the finance ministry.

Many early postcolonial liberators stumbled because they completely lost touch with “the people”. That shouldn’t happen to the ANC or China’s communists, partly because social media now keep them updated on what “the people” are thinking (while keeping said people stuck in their bedrooms tweeting).

When Jesus does return, an ANC president may still be around to welcome him to Nkandla. By then South Africa will probably have segued from one-party democracy into one-party state. The ANC’s eternal rule is Nelson Mandela’s worst legacy.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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