South Africa

Deciphering one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma

By Ranjeni Munusamy 6 November 2012

Does the president truly believe in the precepts of the Constitution? When you cut through the speeches and spin doctoring, Zuma’s beliefs are in direct contrast with aspects of the Constitution as well as ANC policy. Does it matter that the head of state prefers a return to patriarchal chieftainship? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Very few politicians are truly honest about what they themselves believe. Their viewpoints and policy positions are tightly bound by their political party’s ideological standpoints and there is little room to manoeuvre outside them. When they have to play to the gallery, there is always the temptation to push the envelope and say what you audience wants to hear. It’s even worse when they think they are among their own and can relax the stomach muscles a bit.

US satirists have had a field day during the presidential campaign pointing out the serial flip-flopping of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is either blissfully unaware of (or could care less about) the habit in his race for the White House. Romney has swayed from outright condemnation of President Barack Obama’s policies on some occasions to tacit approval and recanting of his previous statements to suit current conditions. In the next 24 hours it will be evident how forgiving the US electorate is of these shifts. 

In South Africa, Tony Leon, previous leader of the Democratic Alliance, found himself in a bout of trouble in 2004 when he said on the campaign trail that he and many other MPs favoured the return of the death penalty. Leon was obviously caught up in campaign fever and trying to appeal to crime-weary voters when he decided to disregard the fact that his party was opposed to the death penalty. Leon was at the time also the deputy chairman of Liberal International, which passed a resolution in 2000 stating that the federation should “work for the total abolishment for the use of the death penalty in the world”. 

The statement will forever haunt his legacy.

President Jacob Zuma, however, is in a league of his own when it comes to uttering statements completely contrary to his party positions and the Constitution. His comments particularly on gender issues and sexual orientation betray his real views, deeply underlined by Zulu traditionalism. 

During a recorded interview recently with Dali Tambo on his show People of the South, Zuma’s comments about single women were not accidental. He is renowned for making such remarks and in the relaxed, homely atmosphere Tambo conjures in his interviews, Zuma let his guard down. Speaking about his daughter Duduzile’s marriage, Zuma said: “I was also happy because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married, because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that 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 actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother.” 

Despite efforts by the presidency to explain away the statements as part of government’s efforts to strengthen family units, there is no getting away from the fact that these comments undermine the ANC agenda to empower women to make their own life choices. The Constitution upholds women’s rights not primarily as mothers, but full citizens entitled to educational and economic advancement.

Fortunately for Zuma, the public outrage passed quickly without him being interrogated further on the matter. 

There was a similar backlash in 2006 when Zuma let slip his views on homosexuality and had to apologise for them. Zuma said at the time: “When I was growing up an ungqingili (a gay) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.” The Sowetan quoted Zuma as saying that same sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God”.

Although Zuma had to recant, he did not do so because he developed respect for gays. He was forced to do so because his views were contrary to the Constitution and his party position on the issue. It is doubtful that he would have had a change of heart on the issue. 

But it is his comment last week that tacitly undermines the rule of law and the Constitution and argues in favour of a return to a system of patriarchal chieftainship that is most concerning. During an address to the National House of Traditional Leaders last week, Zuma strayed off the prepared text of his speech, and in effect contradicted it. 

Speaking on the controversial Traditional Courts Bill, Zuma argued for a return to an African way of resolving disputes and a rejection of “the white man’s way”. City Press reported that Zuma also slammed black people “who become too clever”, saying “they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”.

Zuma asked traditional leaders to help people understand who they are. “Because if you are not an African, you cannot be a white, then what are you? You don’t know. You can’t explain yourself. How then can you grow children?” Zuma asked in isiZulu: “Whose traditions will they (the children) practise? The Zuma traditions or the Smith traditions? We have lost direction. Even if I live in the highest building, I am an African.”

He said he felt “very passionately” about resolving disputes in a traditional way. “During our time we did not have prisons because never did we say it was a problem we could not resolve.… Prisons are done by people who cannot resolve problems,” he said, asking traditional leaders not to be “influenced by other cultures”. 

Apartheid took away “our dignity… because our traditional system and leadership was undermined. But once you get freedom, you must bring it back”, City Press quoted the president as saying. 

The ANC would obviously be extremely embarrassed by Zuma’s utterances, which effectively undercut the constitutional system the party has worked so hard to build. These, together with his previous statements, help to sketch Zuma’s perspective of the world and why he so often hides behind the ANC to camouflage his own views. 

If Zuma were an ordinary member of the ANC whose views were superseded by those of the majority, his traditional beliefs would be immaterial. But as leader of the ruling party and head of state, it is a great risk for the country that Zuma believes in an alternate system rather than the one he is sworn to uphold. 

Of course it is absurd – and unlikely – that the ANC could be swayed by anyone to change the Constitution and revoke the rights of women and gays. But the judicial system is a highly contested terrain in the country. In the next few years, the judiciary and the constitutional system could come under further pressure if religious conservatism, African traditionalism and leftist militancy in the passages of power continue to rise. 

It would be a real problem then if the chief custodian of the Constitution does not believe in its primacy. 

As with most other issues relating to the question of leadership, the fault-line lies with the ANC and its system for choosing leaders. If the ANC had a chance to conduct a basic assessment of its leaders, including their beliefs in the party’s own policies, the Mangaung battle would have a completely different dimension.

South Africa has already paid the price of one president whose eccentric views on HIV and Aids had a devastating effect on the health and mortality rate of the nation. With the ANC not willing or able to screen its leaders, it will be up to South Africa’s electorate at the next national election to decide whether it is prepared to be led by someone whose belief system is divergent to that envisaged by the Constitution. What might appear to be quirky, offbeat views now, can one day soon become ominous. DM

Photo by Reuters.


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