Why SA enjoys hating Zuma
    Jeremy Gordin
    October 19 2008 at 10:42AM

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In almost every historical account in which Jacob Zuma features, even peripherally, he is portrayed as intelligent, brave, committed and exceptionally pleasant.

I am referring to accounts that can be found in six major works by skilled and perceptive journalists, a historian, a judge and a lawyer.

They range from the memoir by Albie Sachs of how apartheid regime operatives blew off his arm and destroyed his eye (The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, 1990); veteran journalist Allister Sparks's "inside story" of South Africa's "negotiated revolution" (Tomorrow Is Another Country, 1994); and Patti Waldmeir's tale of the end of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa (Anatomy of a Miracle, 1997).

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Chronologically, these were followed by historian Luli Callinicos's biography of Oliver Tambo (Beyond the Engeli Mountains, 2004); Mark Gevisser's biography of Thabo Mbeki (The Dream Deferred, 2007); and lawyer Peter Harris' remarkable story of the Delmas four (In a Different Time, 2008).

Why, then, does one encounter such a high level of irrational hostility from so many people towards Zuma, the ANC President and future president of South Africa?

Why does the man, perceived by clever observers to be intelligent, brave, committed and so on, suddenly have horns, as well as a shower head, growing out of his skull?

Many people would reply that one doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to understand why people dislike Zuma.

They would say that, in return for helping Schabir Shaik with his business endeavours, Zuma apparently took money from him; that he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and said foolish things during his ensuing rape trial; and that, despite claiming to want "his day in court", he's done his damnedest to stay away from being tried in connection with Shaik and French arms company Thint.

They would also say that Zuma is implicated in arms deal calumny; that his main supporters are bright-red lefties who will do appalling things to our economy; that "Zuma's ANC" viciously attacked the judiciary and the principle of "equality before the law"; and that, in a dastardly move, "his" ANC recalled former president Thabo Mbeki.

Let's take a minute and consider whether there exist rational refutations of these "charges" - or, at any rate, answers that are different to the usual indignation.

  • Taking money from a comrade who has promised to help you through a difficult time is not necessarily proof of corruption; it is definitely not proof of corruption until a judge of the high court finds it so. And, given the type of person Zuma seems to be, and the kind of the relationship he had with the Shaiks, even if no money had been involved, he would probably have helped Shaik in his business dealings anyway.

  • There is no law against having intercourse without a condom with an HIV-positive person. More to the point, Zuma said in court that he knew full well that there was a very slim chance of a male contracting HIV if he had intercourse once only with an HIV-positive woman. Besides, it is not our business what two adults decide to do privately.

  • As for some of the allegedly silly things Zuma said in court - that the woman in question was signalling a sexual interest in him and that he washed after they had intercourse to lessen the chances of infection - these remarks were made in a particular context (cross-examination) and they have undoubtedly been taken out of context ad nauseam to mock Zuma.

    The hard truth is that if you hold some of the attitudes held by males of a certain generation, and a young woman opts to spend the evening in your house wearing a kanga sans underwear, you might assume that she is interested in a little dalliance. Secondly, ever since Florence Nightingale discovered that hygiene helped prevent death, we are all inclined to believe that soap and hot water defeat germs.

  • Zuma did in fact have "his day in court" - in September 2006, in Pietermaritzburg. You can't blame Zuma if Judge Herbert Msimang struck the case off the roll. Why should Zuma have to keep going back to court? In addition, as Judge Chris Nicholson pointed out in September, there has been so much interference in the prosecutorial process over the years that the case against Zuma is hopelessly tainted.

  • Zuma might be guilty, as the state claims, of getting money from Shaik companies, which were involved in the arms deal, and/or from a bribe paid by Thint, which was in a joint venture with Shaik. But, notwithstanding the huge growth industry seeking to tie Zuma to "the arms deal", none of that money, even in the state's version, came from the treasury or the taxpayer's pocket. What then is Zuma's connection with "the arms deal"?

  • Many of Zuma's staunchest supporters are leaders of the communist party and Cosatu. So what? Is it not time we realised that whatever positives have emerged from the Mbeki government's fiscal policies (and there have been many for the wealthy), the poor have grown poorer. Maybe it would not be a calamity to consider other, more socialist ways of running the economy.

  • The leaders of the post-Polokwane ANC did attack the judiciary. They could not understand why the courts could not see what they saw: that the prosecution of Zuma was politically inspired and that therefore the principle of "equality before the law" was being flouted in Zuma's case. I am not saying they were correct, though Nicholson thought they were.

  • The ANC is a political party, many of whose members were, or are, seasoned politicos and trade unionists whose modus operandi is to apply pressure publicly to get what they want. It's called politics. And, although the courts and judges should be respected, they don't have to be mollycoddled more than anyone else or any other institution.

  • The post-Polokwane ANC leadership - and it would be disingenuous to pretend Zuma was not involved - fired Mbeki because Nicholson's comments confirmed what they had long suspected, but also because they had wanted to fire him for a long time, for all the reasons the majority of ANC delegates did not re-elect him to the ANC presidency.

    But even if one tries to argue rationally about the "charges" against Zuma, the hostility - a dislike that has no rational basis - continues against him.

    So I return to my original question: why is there such a high level of irrational hostility towards Zuma?

    There are a few answers, including the simplest one: after 12 years in power and with a top-heavy leadership, the ANC has unsurprisingly split into different camps and the people in the non-Zuma camps don't like Zuma.

    And, obviously, this has not been helped by the way his saga has played out in the public eye. Anthony Butler, the biographer of Cyril Ramaphosa, remarked dryly: "Post-apartheid political biography has mostly presented a procession of saints. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, great and tough-minded political leaders, have been rendered as cuddly as teddy bears."

    There might be some people who think Zuma is cuddly but every one knows, after the past few years, that he's not a saint.

    Whites (those who have not met him) also find Zuma threatening because he comes from a world that is different to theirs. Nelson Mandela also comes from another world. But some of his closest colleagues and friends are white, and, above all, whites were never allowed to feel unwelcome on his watch.

    Mbeki is, or came to be portrayed as, aloof and cold and he has often played the race card. But he has a master's degree in economics from an English university, he is the son of a venerable ANC leader, he speaks and practises capitalism and he seems at home hobnobbing with world leaders.

    Zuma, on the other hand, is often seen at political rallies in the company of men perceived to be hotheads - Zwelinzima Vavi of Cosatu, Blade Nzimande of the South African Communist Party, not to mention the "big mouths" from the ANC Youth League - none of whom are cuddly, nor much interested in being ingratiating to whites.

    But, above all, Zuma and "his" ANC represent a deviation from our national myth.

    A national myth is defined as "an inspiring narrative about a nation's past". And ours, as hinted at in Butler's comment, is that our modern founding fathers are saints and that the end of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa was a miracle.

    Perhaps it is not entirely a myth; Mandela does have saintly attributes. But we have exaggerated them, turning him into "an icon". And, by extension, the whole of the ANC and its struggle for power has been transformed from just any "liberation army", whose leaders made mistakes and sometimes didn't, and just any "war of liberation" into something glorious and lofty.

    But the reality is that, although many ANC leaders have been brave, idealistic and strong, they have not been saints.

    Any brief, unsentimental journey through the history of the struggle and the ANC reveals this. They have been, and are, human beings - no more and no less.

    It is easy to wax lyrical about what happened in the early 1990s and immediately afterwards. But the negotiated revolution, as Sparks called it, was more about both sides making pragmatic decisions than it was about revolution.

    This is not to diminish the astuteness and level-headedness of Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mbeki, as well as the internal revolt of many ordinary (and extraordinary) South Africans, going back to Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976 and including trade union and United Democratic Front activities in the 1980s.

    Nor is it to belittle the example set by exceptionally brave and committed people such as Mac Maharaj and Zuma, who put their lives on hold for the struggle.

    It is merely to say that what happened in South Africa wasn't a miracle. It was a wonderful achievement by human beings; and human beings, who make mistakes and have flaws, are not saints.

    When the grande dame of the ANC, Frene Ginwala, sat on the podium at Polokwane, looking at the delegates who voted in Zuma and shouted down Mosiuoa Lekota, and she thought to herself (or so it seemed to me) that "this group of reprobates does not represent the ANC of Tambo or Mandela", she was both right and wrong.

    She was right because it was not the ANC of Tambo or Mandela - or of Mbeki. It had changed because the country and circumstances had changed and they, the ANC delegates, had changed.

    And yet she was wrong because it was indeed the ANC of Tambo, Mandela and Mbeki - but it was the ANC as it had evolved during the past 10 years.

    Zuma has also perforce changed because of the investigation into his affairs and because he was fired from his job. He has been fighting for his political life and to stay out of jail. That's enough to make anyone move on from playing the role of an auxiliary saint.

    But, just as we don't like change, we don't like deviations from our national myth. It's frightening and makes us dislike those whom we hold responsible.

  • Jeremy Gordin is the author of Zuma: A Biography, which is due to be published by Jonathan Ball next month

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