This is traditionally a slow news season, which is why it was canny of the Jacob G Zuma Foundation to seize the moment to announce a large donation to go towards an improved version of the isiZulu Bible. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at the president’s private philanthropic foundation and its concerns.
File this in your Get to Know the President dossier: President Jacob Zuma has long been dissatisfied with the quality of the isiZulu translation of the Bible. We’ve learnt this from the press release put out by the Jacob G Zuma Foundation, announcing a R500,000 donation to be used to improve the existing translation.
The press release announced: “A new version will now be directly translated from Biblical languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, straight into isiZulu”.
IsiZulu speakers who are also fluent in Aramaic: consider this your conscription call.
The president handed over a cheque on Sunday at the St Joseph Cathedral in Mariannhill, in KwaZulu Natal.
The money is reportedly going to the Roman Catholic Church to lead the project, though Zuma himself is not Catholic. Zuma was ordained as an honorary pastor by a charismatic church in 2007, which the Christian Front labelled “shameful” at the time.
There seems little doubt that the president’s concerns over the quality of the isiZulu Bible translation are authentic, coming from an avowedly religious man. Cynics will wonder, however, if the gesture is also partly designed to appease Christian leaders, with whom Zuma has had a turbulent relationship.
In 2011 he attracted criticism for saying that the arrival of Christianity had brought problems for Africa which included “orphans and old-age homes”. (Spokesman Mac Maharaj said that Zuma had, as ever, been quoted out of context). The comment came only a few months after Zuma had been forced to apologise to the SA Council of Churches for telling supporters that only an ANC membership card would grant them a pass into Heaven.
In 2012 church leaders blasted President Zuma in an open letter, accusing the political leadership of having “largely lost their moral compass”. Late last year Zuma called on the religious sector to “point out mistakes in a constructive manner and recommend solutions”, though the statement which grabbed headlines from the same event came from Twelve Apostles’ Church in Christ leader Caesar Nongqunga, who said of Zuma that “when he leaves here, he will go straight to his home in Nkandla and nothing will happen to him – he will travel safely and sleep peacefully because God is protecting him”.
This isn’t the first time that the Jacob G Zuma Foundation has made a religion-related contribution. In June 2012 it built a church in Nkandla, in collaboration with Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals.
The Jacob G Zuma Foundation grew out of what was originally the Jacob Zuma Reconstruction and Development Programme Educational Trust, established in 1995 before he became president. The present-day foundation was registered in 2008 and formally launched in 2010.
Intellectual property expert Mark Smith recently discovered that the foundation appears to have spent R79,650 in one day to file 135 unsuccessful trademark applications. Its Executive Chairperson is Dudu Myeni, the controversial SAA chairperson who is rumoured to have had a romantic relationship with Zuma.
The Mail & Guardian reports that Zuma resigned as official director of the foundation in 2009, but he is referred to on the foundation’s website as the “Patron”. There’s a slightly North Korea-ish feel to the language: “The Patron is renowned for his benevolence”, for instance.
A Twitter account purporting to represent the foundation (@JacobZumaFound) has been inactive since May 2014, and before that was used to express sentiments like: “Mr President was accused for Arms Deal, now Nkandla saga. This is called cheap propaganda at its finest. Wishing ANC a resounding success!”
The foundation focuses on education, through a bursary programme, but it has also built homes in emergency situations – “this service in no way competes with government”, it stresses – and runs a hydroponic crop-garden programme, with the pilot project established in Nkandla. There is also a “discretionary projects” fund, for people who “have tried all avenues for help without resolution, hence they approach the Patron”. Among the needy people who have been helped by this fund is the family of one deceased “Mrs du Plessis”, who could not afford to pay for her funeral.
There appears to be little transparency about the foundation’s operations or funding. On its website, members of the public are urged to donate money, and it is known that Myeni has been on overseas fundraising missions before. The Mail & Guardian reported in 2012 that Telkom made a R1 million donation to the foundation in 2011. A major backer appears to be Patrice Motsepe.
Though the foundation is private, press releases announcing foundation activities are often carried on the official government website. One such release, from October 2014, begins: “The JG Zuma Foundation, under the stewardship of its patron – the President of the country, continues to make a difference where it matters most”, and is filed under Event category: Government activities.
When the foundation recently held an event for the beneficiaries of its educational trust, an impressive complement of government ministers attended: Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini.
The foundation occasionally finds support from big corporates – it partners with Sanlam to host the annual Msholozi soccer tournament, for instance – but CEO Dudu Myeni recently gave an intriguing hint that it may not all be smooth sailing in this regard. Myeni was quoted by the SABC as saying that “sometimes it’s difficult to secure sponsors for the foundation of a sitting president”. One imagines that the invisible words after “sitting president” are: “plagued by scandal”.
President Jacob Zuma is not the only philanthropist in his family. At least three of his wives have their own foundations.
“Instead of people following me to Stuttafords to buy a perfume, let them follow me to do something good for the community,” Bongi Ngema-Zuma said in June 2014. DM