Jacob Zuma has always been the victim.
He was the victim of a political conspiracy in 2007, when he was charged with fraud and corruption, he was a victim of "the West" during his presidency, and he was the victim of state-capture propaganda before his grudging resignation.
On Friday, seven weeks after being ejected from presidential office, he effortlessly slipped back into victim mode, comforted by the embrace of some truly dubious characters and fêted by thousands of supporters who came to sing his praises after his first appearance in the Durban high court.
The problem now, the one I'm hated and vilified for, is that freedom without economic freedom is not complete –Jacob Zuma to supporters outside court
After taking the microphone on a baking hot Durban day, Zuma questioned the integrity of the legal system, lamented about conspiracies and plots, bemoaned the abuse of democracy, argued that his rights had been violated, and styled himself as a freedom fighter standing up for the black man.
"I haven't heard that the same charges are laid on a person, dismissed, and then they come back again... It's the prosecutors who should've seen that I have no case, they held a grudge against me... Our democracy is wondrous, they push their opposition not in Parliament but in the courts, where there should be no politics...
"Maybe [if the trial starts] some will wish it hadn't even begun, and won't wish it to continue... The burden of a black man is difficult... The problem now, the one I'm hated and vilified for, is that freedom without economic freedom is not complete," Zuma said.
The scenes inside and outside court were remarkably similar to those in 2008, during which he made numerous treks to courts in Durban and Pietermaritzburg: from the red tie and dark suit that he wore, to the songs that were sung and the truck from which he addressed diehard supporters.
Zuma remains a populist who will continue to position himself as the victim of an unjust system. And he has no qualms about whipping up support using racial rhetoric and dishonest slogans like "radical economic transformation" to shield himself from what this is really about: taking money from an arms company.
It was quite telling that he was supported by a motley crew of the discredited and the dodgy...
Although he has often repeated that he wants his day in court to clear his name, he has aggressively applied every tactic in the book – legal and unsavoury, depending on the urgency – to prevent exactly that. As head of state he manipulated and debased state institutions (such as the National Prosecuting Authority) to ensure that he never went to court, and now as accused number one, he will mobilise popular support with a message about victimhood
It was quite telling that he was supported by a motley crew of the discredited and the dodgy: Andile Mngxitama from Black First Land First was given a platform (with Zuma grinning behind him), the opaque Transformation Now shouted about Eskom that must be boycotted, tone-deaf Carl Niehaus loudly paid fealty to Msholozi, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, erstwhile SABC czar, lashed out at the ANC while Sihle Zikalala, one of the wounded at Nasrec, defended those ANC members that came to support Zuma.
The former head of state has clearly dusted off his playbook from 2007 and 2008
But the ANC have serious issues going forward. Zuma will, cynically, mobilise support in KwaZulu-Natal using victimhood as the main argument. The party in the province is already deeply divided and is under the curatorship of a provincial task team – after the election of the party leadership was declared null and void last year. This will not help bridge divides.
Zuma has already visibly made inroads, with the KZN premier Willies Mchunu and a number of MECs attending the court appearance. Hundreds of supporters also defied instructions from Luthuli House not to wear party regalia and colours to court, preferring to show loyalty to Zuma instead. This points to Zuma's popularity, his ability to draw crowds – and a penchant to divide and rule.
The former head of state has clearly dusted off his playbook from 2007 and 2008, revisiting the successful political strategy that brought him so much success. Except this time, it won't be a political fight, but a legal one – where facts and forensics will count for much more than chants and cheerleading.