by Piet Coetzer

Zuma and the turncoats

Five years ago, the ANCYL helped Zuma to oust Mbeki as leader.


When the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) recently heaped glowing congratulations and adulation on the head of ex-president Thabo Mbeki on the occasion of his 70th birthday, president Jacob Zuma could be forgiven if the term “turncoats” came to his mind. Five years ago, the ANCYL helped Zuma to oust Mbeki as leader. Now it is Zuma's birthday that’s been forgotten. 

Wikipedia tells us that a turncoat “is a person who shifts allegiance from one loyalty or ideal to another, betraying or deserting an original cause by switching to the opposing side or party. In political and social history, this is distinct from being a traitor, as the switch mostly takes place under the following circumstances:

In groups, often driven by one or more leaders and When the former cause driving and benefitting the person becomes unviable or too fraught with danger.”


There are various theories about the origin of the term but the most common explanation traces it back to a legendary duke of Saxony by the name of Emmanuel.

Historians are not sure when he was born or died but are sure he lived at a time when France and Germany were permanently at one another’s throats – probably sometime during the ninth or 10th century.

With Saxony’s dominions bordering both countries, relationships could, at times, become complicated for Emmanuel. Legend has it that he had a coat made for himself that was blue on one side and white on the other. White on the one side for the French and blue on the other for the Germans.

Expediency determined which colour would be worn on the outside. This practice earned him the nickname Emmanuel the Turncoat.


Another story mentioned as a possible origin for the term by some sources, and one to which President Zuma can probably more closely relate in the run up to the end of the year ANC elective congress, comes from the English Civil War in the 16thcentury.

It was a time of unparalleled brutality across the British Isles. The conflict pitted fathers against sons, tore families apart and divided many communities for generations.

In the battle for Corfe Castle, where the royal army was under siege, the parliamentary force under the command of one Colonel Bingham had the simple, yet brilliant, idea of turning their coats inside out.

The linings of their uniforms were in Royalist colours and the castle’s defenders were tricked into believing they had been relieved. Parliamentary troops thus breached the walls, gained entry to the keep and captured the castle.

However, the first appearance of the term 'turncoat' precedes the battle of Corfe Castle in 1572. It already appeared in the 1570 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Against this background the website Vaguely Interesting says about the term 'turncoat' that “A definitive etymology is impossible, but it is more likely that the word was employed to describe anyone who hid their allegiances by turning their coat inside out and thus hiding their party colours or heraldic badges.”

Beware of traps

But, as now disgraced ex-ANCYL leader Julius Malema can testify, turncoats should be careful not to make boo-boos when they turn their coats against Jacob Zuma. They might just end up walking into a booby-trap.

The word ,’booby' derives from the Spanish word bobo, which means 'stupid'. The root of the Spanish word, in turn, is the Latin word balbus, which means stuttering. The ancient Romans considered stammering to be a sign of stupidity.

The word 'booby' appeared in the English language as early as 1599. There is also an old English expression dating back to the 17th century that a "booby will never make a hawk", meaning that a bird that allows itself to be so easily duped will never itself become a bird of prey.

According to the Phrase Finder, booby-trap’s origins can be traced to a sailing background. “In need of a bit of dietary variety, sailors would set up a simple rope noose on the decks of their ships baited with bread or stale biscuits. Passing sea-birds, like boobies would land on deck seeking rest or shelter and be lured and caught in the rope, hence booby-trap.”

Migrating from the world of bored sailors, the word booby-trap entered everyday life as an alternative term for a practical joke by the mid 19th century. The original meaning in everyday use was similar to the notion of an April Fool, that is the joke was such that only a naive 'booby' would fall for it.

Among the descriptions of booby-traps in literature, hinting at things to come later, is the setting up of a container of water on top of a door left ajar to give the person opening it a surprise shower.

During World War I, the term acquired a more sinister meaning in a military context. Traps that could, and were, intended to kill were set up all over terrain through which the enemy might move. These traps also became known as booby-traps.

The term can also be used, especially in the context of political or other power struggles, in a more figurative sense. And, as Malema discovered, if you lose such a battle you might end up with a booby-prize or even nothing to show for your trouble but trouble itself.

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