President Butternut Head

Andrew Donaldson writes on a new and powerful way of expressing one's displeasure with Zuma

IT came as a surprise to learn that the butternut is not in fact a vegetable but a fruit. It is, of course, widely used as a vegetable, and is routinely roasted, toasted, puréed and mashed up in casseroles, breads and even muffins.

I mention this only because here at the Mahogany Ridge we have discovered another use for this versatile staple, especially among supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters. 

First, one scrawls “Zuma” on the raw butternut in a prominent manner, preferably with a thick black marking pen. Then it is skewered with a stick so that it can be held aloft and waved about in an excitable fashion while toyi-toying. The butternut thus becomes a powerful expression of one’s displeasure with the president.

It is true that for a while now some of his opponents have been calling Jacob Zuma “Mr Butternut”, a reference to the way editorial cartoonists routinely exaggerate the shape of his head in their work. 

But the physical depiction of the jibe has nevertheless been an eye-opener and it has prompted some discussion among the Ridge regulars, particularly those of an anthropological bent who suggest the butternut could be seen as being symbolic of a ritual hunting trophy. Or some such.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that this, to put it mildly, has not been a good week for the president. Even before his inglorious question-and-answer session in the National Assembly on Thursday, there was much to signal that, across society, the disdain and disregard for Zuma has reached tsunami-like proportions. Not since the time of PW Botha has a head of state been subjected to such sustained contempt.

It was there on Wednesday when University of Witwatersrand vice-chancellor Adam Habib addressed a labour law conference in Sandton. 

In a blunt, hard-hitting manner Habib warned that the country was headed for a crisis of “incredible proportions” due to a lack of “nuanced and mature strategic leadership” in both the private and public sectors. “We don’t have it in the state, the presidency, the corporate sector and the union movement.” 

This was sobering stuff. But it was telling that delegates burst into laughter when Habib said of Zuma: “The president, no one knows what he is doing actually.” 

Not a nice laughter, you understand, but a scornful and dismissive laughter. Worse than butternuts, this laughter suggested that even if anyone knew what the president was doing no-one gave a damn. He could do his best – or worst – but it mattered little; this was now not a presidency but an irrelevancy.

The same laughter, albeit a little more incredulous, could be heard on Thursday when Zuma told MPs that “the country is not going down. It is not going backwards since me. South Africa is being governed responsibly.”

It was more or less expected that the president would not be responding in any meaningful way to MPs’ questions on Nkandla, which must now be seen, not as his country home, but a shabby monument to corruption and ineptitude.

What was unexpected, though, was Zuma’s ignorance of some quite pressing national issues. Shocked ANC members had little to laugh at here.

The president appeared to have no idea, for example, about the ham-fisted decision by Mineral Resources Minister Ngaoko Ramatlhodi to suspend Glencore’s coal mining licence following retrenchments at the mine. He had not been briefed on the matter, he said. 

Asked what investors would make of Ramatlhodi’s actions, he churlishly responded, “I can’t be a sangoma.”

It was the same when asked whether he condemned Police Minister Nathi Nhleko’s loopy comments on possible corruption in the judiciary. “It’s literally the first time I hear (of this),” he said.

Zuma was similarly clueless on allegations – contained in the Farlam commission’s report into Marikana, the one he’d been “applying his mind” to for many months – that Lonmin was involved in the illicit flight of capital from the country. 

It was all rather dreary and here at the Ridge there was some muttering about letting the people eat butternut. The fruit and veg people know what to expect.

* Last week I stated that Buti Manamela, the Deputy Minister responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, had been “very bullish about military training and is convinced it will counter social alienation, gangsterism and drug and alcohol abuse with discipline, patriotism and other warlike habits” among the youth. 

This was not the case. It was Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, who reportedly wanted conscription reinstated. I regret any embarrassment this may have caused Manamela.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.