Gareth van Onselen says the President's blunders follow a predictable pattern
Emboldened by his support at Mangaung President Zuma has recently upped the ante by promoting and defending what he understands to be ‘African culture', its practices and beliefs, with newfound relish and zeal. The compulsion, however, is nothing new. Contained or unchecked, the President has always been an outspoken advocate for the ‘African way' or, at least, the ‘Zuma way', for much of what he claims is contested, if not condemned.
Perhaps a partial response to persistent questions about his intellectual acumen, one gets the sense he hopes to be seen as imparting great wisdom by alluding to the majesty and wonder of African culture; that, by recalling its traditions with some ostensible authority, he might engender the perception he is wise beyond his everyday appearance. Well, I have bad news: the emperor has no clothes.
At least, not if those traditions to which he has thus far referred are anything to go by: often they are unconstitutional, divisive, stereotyped, racist, bigoted, sexist, undemocratic, offensive, unethical or just plain incomprehensible. But wisdom they most certainly are not. And, in elevating one culture, inevitably another is denigrated; so all this suits nicely Zuma's ‘us' and ‘them' demagoguery.
Perhaps he is trying dogmatically to restore pride of place to those values and beliefs he was brought up with, in the face of ‘Western' cultural hegemony (quite when it became fashionable to describe something so complex by a single geographic euphemism I am not sure, but it really is to reduce understanding down to little more than a cliché). If that is the case it explains his silence about all those far more problematic aspects of African culture - witch-killings, muti-murders, rampant misogyny, patriarchy, among others. Every culture has its good and bad elements; if you are going to promote one, you need to be honest about the other. But Zuma rarely, if ever, condemns any ‘African' cultural practice that is blatantly anti-freedom.
[Aside: I have not dealt here with Zuma's various religious utterances, an important part of his cultural make-up. Those I have set out in detail elsewhere. See ‘The ten commandments according to Jacob Zuma'.]
Whatever his motivation, you can be sure a Zuma cultural gaffe does about as much good for his own reputation as it does for the culture he is trying so desperately to uphold - none at all.
Often such an occasion will unfold in public as follows: Zuma will be speaking to an audience, often in the vernacular and often off the cuff; he will identify an ‘African' cultural belief or stereotype and be quoted in English, in the mainstream media; public outrage will follow; the presidency or the ANC will issue a ‘clarification' which either obfuscates or simply rephrases the President's words in a desperate attempt at damage control; the same ‘clarification' will then attack the media and critics alike for misrepresenting the President; and finally, South Africa will debate the issue, in its usual mediocre fashion, as if both sides of the issue are morally equivalent (God forbid anyone actually give less than equivalent space to nonsense, for all views are equal, or so we are told).
Of the inevitable damage control that follows: say what you want about the veracity of Zuma's cultural claims, the fact that he cannot cogently articulate any of them, with causing much unhappiness and, in turn, without some one more coherent trying to repackage his crassness afterwards tells you everything. A shrewd political operator he might be, a shrewd political communicator he is not.
The problem is best illustrated by recalling some of his biggest public blunders, what was said, the implications inherent to the statement, and the nature of the damage control undertaken as a result. Thus, below you will find ‘Jacob Zuma's all time top ten most disturbing cultural quotes', a collection of anti-freedom sentiment. Together they tell you much about the real Jacob Zuma and how his natural impulses are constantly at odds with democratic norms and standards.
Not every quote has at its heart some obvious cultural conviction, but each is born of a personal, anti-democratic worldview which, I think it is fair to say, is well informed by the President's various cultural opinions. Each is followed by an explanation and a paragraph setting out the damage control undertaken in response, as Zuma's PR-minders try desperately and embarrassingly to repackage his various prejudices.
Jacob Zuma's all time top ten most disturbing cultural quotes
1. "We're not forcing people... you can support and be a supporter, but if you go beyond that and become a member, [and] if you're a businessman, your business will multiply... Everything you touch will multiply. I've always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC... because supporting the ANC means you're investing very well in your business." [ANC 101st Anniversary Gala Dinner; Durban; 12 January 2013]
The Damage: We start with the most recent example: Zuma's assurance that those businesses that give financial support to the ANC will, themselves prosper. Or, put it another way: the ANC will use its influence in government to make sure businesses that donate to the party will benefit. Or, another way still: that the ANC will act unethically to ensure there is no clear separation between party and state and, rather than serving all South Africans dispassionately, it will give special reward to those that demonstrate loyalty to the party.
This inability properly to separate party and state is an undemocratic impulse that defines many of Zuma's positions. It is born of an assumption that the ANC is primary and all else, even our constitutional order, is subservient to it; likewise, of a ‘Big Chief' mentality that rewards financial patronage with special favours.
The Damage Control: ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, in response to a call by DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko for Zuma to retract his comment, released an ad hominem statement accusing Mazibuko of being "naïve" when it comes to the African tradition of giving and, remarkably, claiming that "it is also a fact that the ANC is the only party in South Africa that has economic and business friendly policies. The implication of this reality is that if business wants to proper in South Africa, they have to support the ANC as their prosperity is dependent on the ANC being at the helm of South Africa's government." Odd that we should suffer a 2.5% growth rate, given the friendliness of these policies.
2. "Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that's how democracy works. So, it is a question of accepting the rules within democracy and you must operate in them." [President's Question Time; National Assembly; 13 September 2013]
The Damage: That, of course, is not at all how a democracy works; certainly not South Africa's democracy nor our constitution, which is designed to achieve the very opposite effect: to protect individual liberties in the face of any majoritarian threat to them. In terms of basic democratic tenets, this statement from Zuma must rank as his most ignorant. It demonstrates a profound obliviousness about the most obvious and important constitutional principles.
It is cause for some serious concern that a sitting President - constitutionally charged to uphold that very document - appears so out of touch with its fundamentals. Were it true what Zuma alleges, we would be living in a very different country. In such a place, any generally ‘offensive' attitude (from a disagreeable position through to sensitive ethical issues - abortion, the death penalty, gay rights) would be endorsed or rejected not by its compliance with human rights but the majoritarian will and our individual liberties would suffer as a result.
The Damage Control: Spokesperson for the president, Mac Maharaj, released a statement in response to much criticism of Zuma's remark saying it had been "misconstrued" and that "nothing could be further from the truth" than the suggestion the President was trying to elevate the majority above the majority, rather "the President was stating a fundamental democratic principle".
3. "I was happy because I wouldn't want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. People today think being single is nice. It's actually not right. That's a distortion. You've got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they give extra training to a woman, to be a mother." [Excerpt from an interview with Dali Tambo, on 19 August 2012.]
The Damage: Here is a good example of that kind of problem. Many in South Africa hold a sexist or prejudiced view of women - much like the President - who, if this quote is anything to go by, believes women should be giving birth and being mothers. Of course any woman, just like any man, can be whatever they want to be.
There are no prescribed roles for individuals based on their gender, an aspect of identity that although predetermined is not predetermining. In Zuma's majoritarian world, where his culture supposedly demands mothers and children, motherhood is not a choice but a calling, fixed and expected. Were it his view represented a general consensus, in a ‘democracy' that bowed to majoritarian impulses, this outlook would no doubt be prescribed and equality, freedom and choice would be the poorer for it.
The Damage Control: In a bland nothing of a rebuttal Mac Maharaj was quoted as saying Zuma had been speaking in the context of "the need to build cohesive communities and families" and that "he believes strengthening the family is important to enable the building of stronger communities to deal with the many social ills facing society today".
4. "I said, one day, Africans are different. During our time we did not have prisons because never did we say there was a problem could not be resolved. No problem could not be resolved. Every problem can be resolved. Prisons are done by people who cannot resolve problems. Let us not be influenced by other cultures and try to think that lawyers are going to help us. Because Lawyers will never change facts, no matter what the judge says." [Excerpt from a speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament, on 1 November 2012.]
The Damage: The following three excerpts are all drawn from the same speech. Each contains an anti-democratic and constitutionally backwards sentiment. The first, above, is indicative of a more pervasive view, that has long since defined the ANC's approach to accountability and justice.
Namely: the idea that forgiveness and understanding trumps consequence (and in turn, the key principle that justice must be seen to have been done). Time and time again, the ANC has called for members guilty of some or other illegality to be spared any repercussion on the grounds that their ostensible remorse was sufficient - usually only a remorse the party itself was able to see, certainly public sentiment ran in the other direction.
The notion is perhaps best encapsulated by a 2003 quote from Kgalema Motlanthe, in response to a question as to what the ANC intended to do about Tony Yengeni: "We give space to individual leaders to follow their conscience... the ANC only moves in when your own conscience does not guide you properly". So much for the rule of law then. From Travelgate through the Arms Deal, this has been the ANC's - and Zuma's - approach and, with it, "forgiveness" has become a euphemism for the guarantee of future political loyalty.
The Damage Control: In a response to the subsequent criticism, Mac Maharaj released a statement that made no attempt to explain the President's remarks (most of which were off the cuff) simply saying they had "been sensationalized by some newspapers to the point of being grossly misleading."
5. "I always criticize legal people, I know there are many lawyers here. For they will tell you ‘we are dealing with cold facts'. What they don't tell you is that these cold facts deal with warm bodies. ...Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man's way." [Excerpt from a speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament, on 1 November 2012.]
The Damage: Apart from the obvious racism - as if our criminal justice system was based on a set of racially motivated biases; rather, all are equal in front of the law - the clear implication is an alternative exists: the ‘African way'. Quite what this ‘way' is, the President never says, nor does he clearly identify a problem and set out the alternative.
Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the preceding and subsequent excerpts it is apparent he means a less harsh, more caring and compassionate process. That is to misrepresent our existing legal system, which caters for compassion as much as it does dispassionate interrogation, and the sentiment is disturbing and wrongheaded.
As set out above, any idea of justice is not limited exclusively to a defendant or applicant, but needs to engender the acceptance of the public at large. If anything, our criminal justice system doesn't enjoy the support it should for the very reason that corruption, particularly in the ANC, goes unpunished, rather wished away, hidden, excused, denied or covered up.
The Damage Control: See above.
6. "Even some Africans, who become too clever, take a position, they become the most eloquent in criticizing themselves about their own traditions and everything." [Excerpt from a speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament, on 1 November 2012.]
The Damage: Zuma's criticism of what became known as ‘clever blacks' was widely reported on and condemned. Some have defended his remarks as an attempt to protect and promote African cultural practice in the face of those black South Africans who criticized it from a position of ignorance, ostensibly educated in a ‘Western' cultural tradition. But that is to miss the point. Whatever the President's intention, a generic slur is only ever going to be met with ridicule.
If one has a case to argue, you must explain your, ‘African' position, set out the supposedly ignorant criticism and explain why it is wrong. If one fails to do that, all you achieve is to label any criticism of ‘African' cultural practice as racially disloyal in some way and thus illegitimate. As stated above, any culture has its good and bad elements and so one must distinguish valid criticism from invalid criticism or risk creating the perception all criticism is illegitimate. Not to do so is little more than the attitude of an autocratic, racial demagogue.
The Damage Control: See above.
7. "Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white." [Comment from a speech given at Impendle in KwaZulu-Natal, on 26 December 2012.] In the same speech he, again, pleaded with people not to adopt "white culture", suggesting that white South Africans cared more for dogs than their fellow man. He also suggested bringing Commemoration day forward by a week in 2013 saying, "We need to use it to correct each other and protect our culture."
The Damage: Zuma's ‘dog comment' caused a media uproar of spectacular proportions yet, curiously, search as you might, you will not find a direct quote from the President of nature reported - that having a dog was ‘unAfrican'.
The closest you can find to a direct quote on the dog issue, from the original Mercury story, is the line: "Zuma described people who loved dogs more than people as ‘having a lack of humanity'" - a perfectly defensible position.
True, there is general reportage that alleged Zuma had argued spending money on a dog and taking it to the vet was ‘unAfrican', but there is no actual quote from the President. The result of all this, is that an accompanying derogatory and racist sentiment from the President, about ‘whiteness' and hair straightener, was largely overlooked.
The Damage Control: In a statement which, by its failure to deny what was attributed to Zuma effectively admitted he had said it, Mac Maharaj argued the "essential message" the President was conveying was "the need to decolonise the African mind post-liberation to enable the previously oppressed African majority to appreciate and love who they are and uphold their own culture". It did not mention or try to defend the hair straightener comment, so presumably the Presidency agrees with that sentiment: that one's identity, particularly one's racial identity, can or cannot be determined by the degree to which your hair curls.
8. "We have passed laws that prohibit you as a parent [from using] corporal punishment. Today, when, as a parent, you bring your child [to] order by using corporal punishment, you are breaking the law, but the person who passed that law cannot raise your child the way you want to." [Comment at the launch of a road safety and anti-crime campaign in KwaZulu-Natal; 19 December 2011]
The Damage: One could take a simplistic view of this statement, in so far as it criticizes a law passed by Zuma's own government but it should be seen in a bigger cultural context. Zuma has a sexist, patriarchal view of women; a religious, bigoted view of homosexuals and a traditional, conservative view of marriage.
Against that background his effective endorsement of corporal punishment would seem to suggest an authoritarian and religious attitude to children and punishment too; certainly an illiberal one, at odds with our law and the rights of children. "Spare the rod, spoil the child", says Proverbs 13:24. Likewise, Proverbs 23:13 states, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die".
You can be sure that sentiment played its part, given Zuma's religious fervor. Zuma went on to say South Africans should return to the "old way of doing things" because modernity had been harmful to society. One thing is for sure - modernity has been to the benefit of children in this regard. Interestingly, Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Cecil Makgoba said in response: "Consequences of corporal punishment are grave in any language, creed and colour. On this, I respectfully disagree with the President".
The Damage Control: In response to much unhappiness about this particular sentiment and other comments on the supposedly negative effective of modernity (see below), again, rather than address the merits of Zuma's remark, the ANC simply berated journalists for ostensibly misrepresenting the President. "Irresponsible journalism will always find a creative way to mislead, and in this case it inexplicably saw an attack on Christianity in the president's perfectly sound assertion", said ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga. Again, the suggestion was made that the President was merely promoting Ubuntu. So, that is worth recording, then: corporal punishment is a tenet of Ubuntu, according to the ANC.
9. "As Africans, long before the arrival of religion and [the] gospel, we had our own ways of doing things... Those were times that the religious people refer to as dark days, but we know that, during those times, there were no orphans or old age homes. Christianity has brought along these things." [Comment at the launch of a road safety and anti-crime campaign in KwaZulu-Natal; 19 December 2011]
The Damage: Both this comment and the one above were drawn from the same set of remarks. This one in particular was met by much criticism from South Africa's religious community. Archbishop Makgoba said: "We all have a tendency, as we move on in years, to romanticise the past as utopian and without its challenges." The President's comments should be read together with his remark about prisons and the idea that, before the advent of Western culture, an idyllic African culture existed. Without prisons, or orphans (but with corporal punishment). South African Council of Churches general secretary Reverend Mautji Pataki said, "We are just taken aback. We are shocked and we don't understand". Many others in South Africa's religious community expressed equal dismay. Once again, agree with him or not, the President had managed once again to alienate a particular community.
The Damage Control: Once again, the Presidential verbal cleaning crew was called in to mop up after Zuma. Maj Maharaj said the President's comments were misinterpreted by "city slicker" journalists and that "the president speaks in deep Zulu on occasion and his message is often lost in translation".
However, Maharaj never actually disputed anything the President was quoted as saying, arguing merely that "Zuma said that while we welcome the advent of Western culture, some useful traditional ways of doing things and aspects of African culture were undermined or even eroded, some of which were important for the cohesion of communities".
And so, despite his protestations and ‘clarifications', the Presidential spokesperson was unable to provide an alternative transcript of the President's actual comments. One often gets the sense both the Presidency and the ANC have no actual idea what the President said but blindly wade in to protect him on nothing more than the basis of what was recorded in the press.
10. "Same sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God. When I was growing up, ‘ungqingili' [homosexuals in isiZulu] could not stand in front of me, I would knock him out." [Excerpt from speech; 26 September 2006]
The Damage: Perhaps Zuma's most infamous cultural gaffe, certainly one of his most bigoted. It was met by widespread condemnation from inside and outside South Africa's gay community. Ironically, if not disturbingly, Zuma made the remark during Heritage Day celebrations, as he spoke to thousands of supporters in KwaZulu-Natal.
The quote is not only remarkable for its prejudice but for the particular brand of social conservatism it represents, an attitude prevalent in many of the positions the ANC takes. Human Rights Commission chief executive Tshidiso Thipanyane described the comments as both regrettable and inflammatory. In January 2012 Zuma would share a stage with King Goodwill Zwelithini who, like Zuma, would say homosexuality was unacceptable: "Traditionally, there were no people who engaged in same-sex relationships. There was nothing like that and if you do it, you must know that you are rotten... I don't care how you feel about it. If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same-sex is not acceptable." Zuma watched quietly on and only a day later would offer a generic defense of equality before the law.
The Damage Control: This time the damage was too big for anyone else to fix and Zuma himself was forced to offer an apology, arguing that he "did not intend to have this interpreted as a condemnation of gays and lesbians". Quite how he thought it might be interpreted, he never said.
Take a moment to imagine the nature of the ideal world Jacob Zuma holds in his mind. One where women are pigeon-holed as mothers; were Western culture is eradicated, if not reduced down to so insignificant a force it has no baring on day-today life; where business provides financial patronage to the majority party in exchange for favours from the state; where homosexuality is outlawed or not accepted; where crime is met by negotiation, not justice; where corporal punishment and other cultural practices are assessed not against human rights but cultural norms; where majoritarianism rules and people's identity defined in racial terms, gauged against some stereotype of what it is to be black or white or African. What you are imagining is not a democracy, certainly not a constitutional state, with the bill of human rights, rather, a haven for every force that runs against freedom - a racial, bigoted and nationalist time warp, detached from modernity and all its virtues.
And don't think Zuma's various cultural suggestions do not enjoy significant support in South Africa. One only need remember The Spear - a defining assault on our constitution - to realise that, properly motivated, these cultural forces are not intimidated by human rights. If the mood takes the advocates of this kind of thinking, they will stop at nothing to enforce their will.
For all the talk of culture in South Africa, there is one particular cultural set of values the President of the country is responsible for upholding: a culture of human rights. Indeed, he is the highest custodian of those principles and ideals. It is a sad fact that, very often, he sees his role not to uphold them but to undermine them. And, perhaps even a greater moral indictment, his political minders facilitate his prejudice by constantly justifying and excusing away his various assaults on freedom.