Zuma: The Movie

Andrew Donaldson throws his hat into the ring for the right to tell the ex-President's stirring life story


JACOB Zuma appears to be considering his legacy more than ever these days. Having reached his allotted three score and eleventy years some time just now whenever back then, the liar in winter now ruminates on his place in history and the acclaim with which he will be remembered for aeons to come.

Work in this regard has been in progress for a while, puttering on in fits and starts, but an urgency has lately crept into the project: Ex-Convict Number One’s foundation has called for proposals for a documentary on the life of the former president.

This is some smart thinking. Sure, there have been other memorials. There is, for example, that R1.8-million monstrosity in Groot Marico in North West Province. Resembling a giant eyeball popped from its socket, was slung up in 2017 at the site of uBaba’s 1963 arrest in 1963 and is the centrepiece of the ironically named Zuma Liberation Route. Today it rots in the middle of nowhere, largely forgotten and abandoned along with plans for a museum and a giant shopping mall.

Then there is the controversial Zuma statue in Nigeria’s Imo State, also erected in 2017. Almost 10 metres high, it is considered an eyesore in the regional capital of Owerri, where it looms over the harried as they go about their daily grind. The piece seems unfinished and strangely featureless. It bears little resemblance to its namesake. This is a good thing as the statue can easily be refashioned to honour any number of historical figures. Slap a beard on it, say, and it’s Jomo Kenyatta. Or Louis Botha. Better still is the fact that it’s in Nigeria, and most of us will never have to see it.

A more cerebral stab at foregrounding one’s importance came with the publication in December last year of the greatly anticipated Jacob Zuma Speaks: The Words of a President

It was however not the tell-all memoir that the man had been hinting at for years, but rather a collection of his speeches with commentary by the University of Zululand’s Professor Sipho Seepe and media consultant Kim Heller. In a word: bullshit. 

As Rebecca Davis noted in Daily Maverick: “In setting out to write a book rescuing the legacy of Jacob Zuma, Seepe and Heller have succeeded in making the point that Zuma’s legacy can only be revised through a lens of omissions and falsehoods.” As such, she stressed that it belonged on the fiction shelves in bookstores.

Aware, perhaps, of charges that her father had once again short-changed the gullible, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla sought to reassure the reading public that the ware Jakob, if I may, had yet to come. “I just want to let South Africa know that this is going to be the first of many books that my Dad is going to be writing and involved in,” the shrieking violet told those who had gathered at the launch of Jacob Zuma Speaks, “and the book you are all waiting for will be coming soon as well.”

The book that many are waiting for is, of course, the one that will hopefully be thrown at him by a judge. But that is neither here nor there. Books, as Msholozi has no doubt discovered, are strenuous undertakings. They’re time-consuming, and require much dedication and discipline. Writing them is even more difficult. 

Thank heavens, then, for film, the “hot medium”, as the media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it all those years ago. As it happens, the auteurs who gather here on movie club nights at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) were greatly energised by the Jacob G Zuma Foundation’s call for documentary proposals. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

There was, admittedly, initial concern that the gig would be a shoo-in for Leon Schuster, a director whose flicks have been unfeasibly popular with the masses, and that it would be a waste of time for other filmmakers to submit proposals. After some discussion, however, it was felt that, as Schuster was no longer permitted to do Zuluface, a practice that reminded people of slavery and made them very shouty, the field remained wide open and there followed frenetic scribbling and heated discussion for an hour or so in that corner of the bar.

Which ended abruptly upon closer perusal of the foundation’s statement. “In conclusion,” it said, “bidders must demonstrate how they will mobilise resources to make this project a success.” 

The bloody cheek. The cheap bastards not only wanted a turd-polishing propaganda job but they wanted someone else to pay for it.

With that, the project was summarily abandoned. But a rummage through the discarded storyboards and crumpled notes suggest this is a pity, for the bones of a film, of sorts, are there. The theoretical leanings of the Slaughtered Lamb’s short-lived film company are unapologetically Marxist, although of the Groucho tendency, and their approach to documentary must be seen in this light.

In terms of the foundation’s guidelines, the focus of this project is exceptionally broad, and covers the life of its subject from early childhood to the present. An open canvas, in other words, and a large one at that. Given what is in the public domain, it was felt that the “unseen” Zuma should take precedence over the familiar. There is, for example, this proposed scene from an early mathematics lesson: 

Interior, rural school classroom


Now, Jacob. You have ten cows. Zakes over here gives you five cows and Sipho gives you another five cows. How many cows do you have?


More cows, Miss.


Yes, Jacob, but how many more cows?


Not enough, Miss.

The foundation has stressed that the film presents an “Intense chronological account and narrative of [Zuma’s] life as a freedom fighter and a political prisoner”. 

This is a considerable challenge. We know very little of Butternut’s activities in the ANC camps, other than that he was involved in counter-intelligence and apparently went to great lengths to stamp out intelligence when and wherever it surfaced. Often with extreme prejudice. As a political prisoner, though, his martial urges were restricted to chess, which he played a great deal. 

Our filmmakers felt that a fantasy sequence featuring a game with dead guerrillas as pawns would make for compelling cinema and bring together these two aspects of the subject’s life in a grisly but suitably artistic manner.

The film would not be complete without some discussion of uBaba’s sexual compulsions. It would of course be impossible to deal with each and every one of his liaisons or indeed interview even a few of his “conquests”. But his “kanga” beliefs, that women who wear these colourful wraps are gagging for it and he is “obliged” by customary law to give it to them, must be explored.

Our filmmakers again opted for a fantasy scenario. This time a tablecloth is mistaken for a kanga and the dining room furniture is frightfully ravaged to the tune of Ravel’s Bolero. Some of the more sensitive drinkers here suggested the graphic content of this episode be leavened by cutting to the kitchen where a poisoned goat stew is seen bubbling on the stove.

Then there is state capture. Once more, elements of fantasy, some would say delusion, were employed for our narrative, in what appears to be a crude homage to The Arabian Nights. This from the wastepaper basket:

Interior. Darkened cave. Empty except for a table on which stands a teapot. Enter JACOB. He picks up the teapot, gives it a rub.

FX: Lightning flashes, thunder and smoke, which clears to reveal the three GUPTA brothers. They are dressed as genies.

GUPTAS (as one):

Greetings, exalted person!


Huh? Who are you?


We are genies. Magical spirits who have been released from the bondage of the teapot.


We will grant you three wishes.


Three wishes?


Yes, three wishes. Anything you want.


Only three wishes? Why not more wishes?


Uh, hold on, one moment. . .

(The GUPTAS huddle together and whisper among themselves for a moment.)

GUPTAS (as one):

Good news! We have a plan!


You do?


Yes. All our wishes come true. Yours, ours. Ask of us, and all the time. Here, let me explain. . .

As mentioned, the elements of a cracking epic are all present, and it seems almost criminal such creativity will come to nothing. But hope springs eternal, and as soon as we’re done the next round, we will be reaching out to the arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa, in the hope that he may salvage our movie. 

The man was, after all, quite prepared to squander R22-million on a flagpole. We could get a fairly decent flick out there for that much tom. And some change, too. He should think about it.

Other forthcoming attractions

Will our unique documentary feature Bathabile Dlamini, the gracious president of the ANC Women’s League? Time alone will tell, but she is certainly putting in a sterling effort to catch the attention of our various directors and producers.  

In a recent interview with The Star, that once fine newspaper, Batters declared that the ANC’s very survival depended on the removal of its president, Cyril Ramaphosa. 

This sort of chatter may be regarded as typical as we head into the final weeks before the party’s national conference. But there seemed to an especially desperate tone in her mewling this time. The party had never before been in such brown stuff, she said, now that much of its RET faction had been silenced.

“At this point, we have no women’s league, no youth league and no MKMVA. We are in the ANC’s darkest years. All our leagues have been killed. All that exists are small scattered units who cannot tell Ramaphosa that he must account for Phala Phala.” 

Readers will recall that it was Dlamini who, as the disgraced social development minister, once famously warned ANC members not to air their differences in public; those “smallanyana skeletons”, she said, had to remain in the cupboard. Especially hers. Which, given the cock-up her department made with the payment of welfare grants, were not so smallanyana. Now — surprise, surprise — she wants a very noisy forensic examination of Squirrel’s soiled laundry. 

What had gone down at his farm, into his sofa and then out of it, was evidence of a corrupt state, she added. It would of course be arguably more accurate to speak of yet more evidence of a corrupt state. But why split hairs at this point? It’s kind of fun watching the self-immolation. 

Salvation may be at hand, though. The Sumbandila branch of the ANC, active in Limpopo’s Vhembe district, has nominated Carl Niehaus for membership in the party’s national executive committee. 

As they say in parts of Europe. “We are seeing the tunnel at the end of the tunnel.”

Whataboutery, etc

Further to David Bullard’s telling observation yesterday about the “curious sense of deja-vu” experienced by expats in an increasingly gloomy UK, there is of course the small but significant consolation that the present occupants in Downing Street may very soon be moving out. Unlike the situation in South Africa. This from the latest edition of The Economist:

“Liz Truss is already a historical figure. However long she now lasts in office, she is set to the be the prime minister whose grip on power was the shortest in British political history. Ms Truss entered Downing Street on September 6th. She blew up her own government with a package of unfunded tax cuts and energy-price guarantees on September 23rd. Take away the ten days of mourning after the death of the queen, and she had seven days in control. That is the shelf-life of a lettuce.”