There is so much going wrong in South Africa that gets blamed on President Jacob Zuma. Sometimes the blame is warranted, sometimes it is not. Nelson Mandela’s former PA Zelda la Grange found out the hard way this weekend that she did not have a licence to behave badly just because the target of her tirade was Zuma, everybody’s favourite whipping boy. Zuma has a way of infuriating people, particularly with his off-the-cuff remarks, which usually has very little to do with the major problems besetting the country. And what South Africa needs him to talk about, he doesn’t. In a time when the fallacy of a rainbow nation is unravelling and tough moments lie ahead with the deepening power and economic crises, national dialogue is bound to get nasty. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
On Sunday, President Jacob Zuma was bestowed with a saint order by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Africa, Theodoris II, paid a courtesy visit on the president on Sunday afternoon and then bestowed him with the Order of Saint Mark, the highest order the church can give to a foreign national.
The president was apparently pleasantly surprised by the new accolade. “Thank you very much for this honour. I thought it was just a visit. I did not know that there was a surprise,” Zuma said, according to the South African Press Association.
The criteria to earn this honour were not publicised, but it is unlikely to be a source of pride and celebration amongst South Africans that our president has had another honorary title bestowed on him. There seems to be little Zuma can do to earn praise and approval in the country – with the exception, perhaps, of his singing skills.
When Zuma became president of South Africa in 2009, his stated goal was to set the country on the path of “renewal” and get right what had gone wrong in the preceding 15 years of democracy. In his inauguration speech on 9 May 2009, he said: “I commit myself to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion.”
“The dreams and hopes of all the people of our country must be fulfilled. There is no place for complacency, no place for cynicism, no place for excuses,” Zuma went on to say. It is therefore ironic how much his presidency has been defined by complacency and excuses, and how much cynicism it has drawn as a result.
It is difficult to decipher whether Zuma is himself disappointed by how badly things turned out and how public perception of him has plunged over the past few years. Perhaps he does in fact believe that life is generally good in South Africa, that the ANC is a victim of its own success, and that the negative narrative is being played up by what he calls “clever blacks” and an unpatriotic media.
At the ANC’s anniversary celebrations in Cape Town last week, Zuma made two very deliberate points about why South Africa is in the state it is in. At the ANC fundraising dinner, he said: “All the trouble began in 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape”. Breaking away from the text of his speech at the rally the next day, Zuma attributed the electricity crisis to bad planning during Apartheid. The thinly veiled intention behind this is obviously that he and his administration should not be blamed for the parlous state of the nation.
The fact, though, is that much of the national dialogue centres on blaming Zuma for his poor leadership and the infestation of corruption, patronage and lack of accountability. Zuma has become the personification of the rot in society, and Nkandla has come to represent the showstopper for entitlement and plundering of the state by the political elite.
If Zuma is aware of this, he has done little to counter these perceptions. He remains in constant denial, as was evident in a recent SABC interview, that he is responsible for the overspending of state funds on his private home or that he needs to account for it. He is desperate to make people believe that he was exonerated rather than implicated in the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, and that he does not have to answer for it. It is why the dignity and integrity of the Parliament of South Africa has been undermined and why there is the threat of his State of the Nation Address being disrupted next month.
Zuma infuriates people so often and so easily for a number of reasons.
He has created his own reality about Nkandla and about the country, and wants to remain in that bubble for the remainder of his presidency. The ANC, for its part, has encouraged this flight to a parallel universe where the definitions of corruption and accountability are relative and do not involve the president. They have all underestimated just how much anger and resentment this has caused in society, and how it will continue to damage the image of the ANC and government.
From the time Zuma was on the march to the presidency, he was enveloped by prejudice because he did not fit the mould of the sophisticated, polished intellectual the middle classes prefer for African people in leadership positions. He also had a trail of corruption allegations against him, emerged from a rape trial, has a non-conventional family life, and has relationships with dubious people. But when he became president in 2009, he had the opportunity to prove that he could still be a good leader, and there was a level of goodwill in society towards him.
Zuma squandered that, associated himself with even more dubious people like the Gupta family, allowed patronage networks to thrive and pillage the state, converted the executive into a protection racket leeching off the public funds, and refused to take responsibility for any of it. Mostly, Zuma failed to live up to his own desire to be the People’s President, who would direct his administration to serving the poor and working class, prioritise rural development and alleviate people’s suffering.
Instead, he has overseen an economic decline that impedes the ability for what was meant to be his legacy project, the National Development Plan, to be implemented and succeed.
If that is not enough, Zuma has the inclination to set people’s teeth on edge with the unscripted comments he makes. From constantly summoning the Second Coming to his views on women, democracy, dog owners and the media, Zuma rubs against convention, projects views that are backward and sometimes contrary to what the Constitution upholds and constantly stirs controversy.
This is why Zelda la Grange, Nelson Mandela’s former PA, fell easily into the trap of thinking her own prejudice and racially defined insecurities would find resonance simply because Zuma was the primary target. It has become so habitual to mock and deride Zuma for political, economic and even personal woes that people slip into a comfort zone where bigotry and a laager mentality flourish.
In this zone, from which La Grange tweeted on Saturday, colonialism and Apartheid, as represented by Van Riebeeck and FW De Klerk, become valiant leaders South Africans should be grateful for, and Zuma should be held responsible for sentiments he did not express. At no point did Zuma say white people were not “welcome” in South Africa, neither did he himself express opposition to Table Bay Boulevard in Cape Town being named after De Klerk.
In her lengthy apology to “everyone who was offended” by her Twitter rant, La Grange did not acknowledge that some of her anger against Zuma was in fact misplaced, and that his complicity in the Nkandla scandal did not mean he should bear responsibility for her own narrow-mindedness. Perhaps even after her fall from grace, Zuma remains fair game, whether the indictments against him are accurate or not.
The presidency has not commented on the saga, perhaps because La Grange is just another angry, disgruntled South African venting against Zuma. There are many such, from Parliament to the commentariat to ordinary people frustrated at having to eke out a living while Zuma is the embodiment of political privilege.
In the dark days ahead – literally and figuratively – as the power and economic crises worsen, the national conversation is bound to get more polluted and acerbic. Anger and blame will be directed at figures in authority and Zuma will be the ultimate target. Perhaps this is rightly so, as the buck stops with him. But he might also represent a convenient justification for other prejudices and agendas to surface and find resonance.
South Africa struggles to have constructive national debates on big issues such as race and leadership. Perhaps it is because they are too emotive and because everyone is vested. Or it could be because we look for the easy way out and resort to scapegoating. If there is anything to learn from Zuma’s penchant for shooting from the hip and La Grange’s ill-considered outburst, it is to be mindful of what we say and desist polluting the public space any more than it needs to be. DM
Photo: (LEFT): A handout image released by the GCIS shows South African President Jacob Zuma (R) congratulating the newly inaugurated Mozambique President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi (not in the picture), in Maputo, Mozambique, 15 January 2015. The leader of the ruling party, Frelimo, will be sworn in as the country’s President after his party won the presidential elections in October 2014. EPA/KOPANO TLAPE / GCIS (RIGHT) A file image dated 21 September 2004 shows late former South African president and Nobel Peace prize holder, Nelson Mandela (not in the picture), his personal assistant Zelda le Grange (R) and former policeman Donald Card (not in the picture) in Johannesburg, South Africa. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK