With his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders this week President Jacob Zuma offered the clearest insight yet of his vision for the country. The good news is that it's not Zimbabwe he has in mind as a model for transformation.
The bad news is that it's Zaire.
In fact, Zuma's child-like departure from a prepared text, in which he urged the tribal dinosaurs to reject what he termed "the legal practices of the white man", was so Mobutist in tone that the Mahogany Ridge regulars were wondering whether -- in keeping with the great kleptocrat'sauthenticité policies of ridding Zaire of the influences of Western culture -- a name change for their favourite watering hole was on the cards.
Perhaps something like Place Where Calabashes of Fire Water Give the Old Men Great Wisdom.
"Let us solve African problems the African way," Zuma told the house, "not the white man's way. Let us not be influenced by other cultures and try to think the lawyers are going to help. We have never changed the facts. They tell you they are dealing with cold facts. They will never tell you that these cold facts have warm bodies."
Unsurprisingly, the president's remarks were seen as a significant endorsement of the controversial Traditional Courts Bill, which just about everyone this side of Cro-Magnon man has dismissed as appallingly repressive and backward.
Civil rights groups have pointed out that by granting these duffers in dead leopard the power to practice and, if and when they see fit, just invent "tribal law" -- a contradiction in terms if ever there was one -- millions of rural women, the most marginalised and weakest of all groups in our country, will be denied access to justice when they have been wronged. It really is that simple.
Even Lulu Xingwana, the Minister for Women, Children, People with Disabilities and Everyone Else Bar the White Man, will tell you that. She's been a fierce critic of the bill, which she has correctly described as "an apartheid-era piece of legislation" that had been cobbled together with no consultation with rural women.
"Let me remind you the constitution has an equality clause that supersedes custom," Xingwana told Parliament in September. "[The bill] is oppressive to women and discriminatory ... We don't think traditional courts should be allowed to impose forced labour. Why are we taking our people [back] to the dark ages?"
Her president doesn't think it's such a bad place, though, this place of the dark ages, and he's adamant that the "traditional authorities" had the capacity to deal with legal matters affecting people under their "jurisdiction".
"Our view," Zuma said, "is that the nature and the value system of the traditional courts of promoting social cohesion and reconciliation must be recognised and strengthened in the bill."
Accordingly, he added, there was no need, then, to involve external law-enforcement agencies in issues that could be solved by a chief. And he was predictably dismissive of those who had, as he put it, become "most eloquent" in criticising aspects of their African cultural background. "We are Africans," Zuma said. "We cannot change to be something else."
The antipathy towards the white man and his lawyerly ways should, naturally, be seen in the context of Zuma's ten-year legal battle to avoid corruption charges. He will, it must be said, do anything to avoid court appearances -- hence his decision, at the 11th hour, to drop his R5-million lawsuit against Jonathan Shapiro, a white man who goes by the name of Zapiro and whose cartoon depicting the president and his inner circle about to gang rape a woman representing the white man's justice.
Zuma's spokesman, Mac Maharaj -- not a white man but a man whose forefathers nevertheless arrived in Africa from across the sea in the white man's floating houses -- remains, however, of the opinion that Zapiro had wanted to perpetuate the image of the president as "a sexual deviant" with a work that that revealed, at heart, "ingrained prejudices . . . which extended to views about African males and sexual mores".
Perhaps it is more appropriate to talk of rape and sacking mores. Zuma, after all, is determined to emulate Mobutu Sese Seko, the most corrupt African leader of his time.
What is Nkandla, then, other than the local version of the Versailles-like palace that Mobutu built in the jungle at Gbadolite, a refuge of baroque splendour -- all European, of course, from the Limoges china to the Taittinger champagne -- from the white man and his troublesome lawyerly ways?
The palace at Gbadolite is now a pile of rubble and ruins. There is a lesson in that.
This is an amended version of an article that first appeared in the Weekend Argus
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