South Africa

South Africa

Art of apologia: Citizen editor’s sorry letter to President Zuma

Art of apologia: Citizen editor’s sorry letter to President Zuma

Steven Motale, editor of The Citizen, this week issued an apology to Jacob Zuma. (Yup, that Jacob Zuma.) He cast the entire South African media as haters, hell-bent on taking Zuma down simply because of some inherent animus toward people with no (real) PhDs. It’s interesting, however, that Motale decided to issue this apology on the week of the third anniversary of Marikana — without mentioning Marikana once. By RICHARD POPLAK.

A) It is the best of times. B) It is the worst of times. A) South Africa is a post-racial Shangri-La free of political violence, where everyone has a right to express themselves within the bounds of the most progressive constitution in the world. B) South Africa is a racially divided nightmare-scape in which in which the poorest blacks live in slums that form the bedrock of the second-most-uneven society in the universe.

Choose your own adventure, dear reader. If you’re Steven Motale, editor of The Citizen and a longtime local newspaperman, you’ll insist that the South African media has not only chosen narrative B, but written that narrative into being. In a widely discussed piece published this week, entitled I’m Sorry, President Zuma,” Motale split with his booze-and-ink stained colleagues to issue a mea culpa. “I’ve been party to the sinister agenda against Zuma, and can only apologise for that,” he wrote. “The media is as much to blame for the current parlous state of this country’s politics and economy as the politicians and economists who have brought us here.”

My bad, as the kids say.

Motale’s argument is simple: Jacob Zuma has never been found guilty of a single charge of corruption, and yet he is constantly vilified in “the media” as corrupt. According to The Citizen’s editor, the origin of this misconception dates back to 2005, when Zuma’s financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, found himself on the dock for charges of being enormously generous and issuing 783 payments amounting to R4,072,499.85, tying both men in time to the infamous arms dealdemocratic South Africa’s first and greatest act of industrial-scale larceny. Were Shaik and Zuma locked in a mutually filthy pas-de-deux? Not exactly, Motale reminds us. TV and newspaper reports conflated Judge Hillary Squires’ ruling with the prosecution’s contention that there was a “generally corrupt relationship”. That statement, likely to be etched on the largest memorial stone in Zuma’s fifty gazillion rand taxpayer-funded necropolis, appeared nowhere in Squires’ verdict.

If at this point you feel like you need to take a shower, consider the actual wording of the ruling, which Motale insists few of his “colleagues” bothered to read:

“If Zuma could not repay money, how else could he do so than by providing the help of his name and political office as and when it was asked, particularly in the field of government contracted work, which is what Shaik was hoping to benefit from. And Shaik must have foreseen and, by inference, did foresee, that if he made these payments, Zuma would respond in that way (…) It seems an inescapable conclusion that he embarked on this never-ending series of payments when he realised the extent of Zuma’s indebtedness.”

But never mind that: it was all a smear campaign, a media-driven takedown, a hatchet job perpetrated against an otherwise stand-up chap.

The fallout was extreme: Zuma was famously fired by then president Thabo Mbeki, leading up to the nasty process that culminated in Zuma’s triumph at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 52nd National Congress in 2007, and the year later in Zuma’s faction jettisoning the sitting president of South Africa. According to Motale, the press—himself very much included—found the uneducated, five-wifed Zuma distasteful because he mispronounced “Hennessy”, and he and his crew collective hounded the ANC’s new president into ignominy despite his obvious benevolence.

If Zuma is bad, insists Motale, it’s because we wrote him bad. “In many ways the president has turned out to be quite measured, reserved and tolerant of us,” Motale reminds us. “Better than we may have expected him to be, and more forgiving than I would probably have been in the same position.”

While President Motale would have been drafting imaginary plans for gas chambers and concentration camps—(Is Hitler mentioned in this piece? You betcha! Paragraph 22, line 3)—Zuma was instead, well, what was Zuma doing? Motale isn’t particularly interested in Zuma’s record as a leader, so much as he’s obsessed by Zuma’s unimpeachable status as a president with no corruption convictions. It’s South Africa, baby—everyone is corrupt! And yet the Democratic Alliance (DA), despite endless accusations of dirty dealings, gets a free ride. (I’d argue that Helen Zille was undone as leader of the DA by her ludicrous Twars with journalists, culminating in a flameout at the hands of Eusebius McKaiser, but that’s for another day.) Former Zuma lapdog Julius Malema, despite numerous fraud and corruption charges of his own, is now a media darling, while Zwelinzima Vavi, following a sex scandal that “literally [offered] us a metaphor for how he screws the poor”, is similarly venerated by a fawning press now that he’s in the anti-Zuma camp.

And so: “I’m not saying I’m suddenly [Zuma’s] biggest fan, but it’s time to admit I’ve been party to the unfairness, along with many of my colleagues,” writes a chastened Motale

I know what you’re waiting for: Motale’s objective, cool-headed assessment of Zuma’s presidency. But you’d be missing the point. Motale is slamming the mainstream, largely white, pro-DA South African press for perpetuating the fiction that Zuma is corrupt, therefore contributing to “the current parlous state of this country’s politics and economy”. “The media” you see, at the behest of a “sinister agenda”, has destroyed the country by trying to destroy Zuma, whose benevolence toward us is evidence that he’s basically a mensch.

And we know he’s a mensch because our mangled corpses are not currently composting a barren patch of the Karoo hinterland.

We must at this point allow that Steven Motale is a man with rather low standards. Zuma is basically a decent guy because Motale is alive to judge Zuma basically a decent guy. But Zuma isn’t a decent guy—or if he is, none of that decency has filtered through his presidency. Motale knows as well as I do that Zuma has presided over, and actively encouraged, the systemic looting machine that dates back to the colonial era in this country. He didn’t power it up, but he’s done nothing to power it down. He’s worked the levers like a champ. He doesn’t need to have a rap sheet to be the commander-in-chief of a corrupt system.

And yet Motale argues that Zuma is just a dude trying to muddle through, a Kim Kardashian celebri-chump sending the equivalent of misunderstood Instagram selfies into the postmodern malaise.

Nkandla? Zuma, as Motale points out, hasn’t worked construction since he was in Robben Island. “[Who] can honestly say they know for a fact that Zuma knew what Public Works was doing and how it was dealing with the matter? Did he tell anyone what to charge and how much to pay? We don’t know, but most of us assume he did. It’s unprofessional reporting that would not stand up in a courtroom.”

Jesus H Apologia.

Now, this little essay you’re reading should not in turn be construed as an apologia for the South African “media”, which does some effortlessly shitty work on a daily basis. (And who is this “media” about which Motale speaks? SABC 1 is watched by more than 70% of the adult population, while The New Age and Independent newspapers hold roughly 10% market share. That’s over half of the media-scape in Zuma’s corner, mind.) I’ll be the first to acknowledge that some of the “media” is often hysterical, mostly unreadable, and almost always headache-inducing — I’m speaking here of my own work. But the “media” as a coagulated lump? It’s by no means too hard on Zuma.

It’s too easy on him, Citizen Motale. Way, way too easy.

Zuma is not some aw-shucks Harry Truman-esque character who bumbled into the presidency while looking for the Union Buildings powder room. And yet Motale portrays Zuma as a man with no agency, while in fact he holds plenty of agency, or at least his benefactors, henchmen and enablers do. This is not, you’ll agree, because of too much press scrutiny. It’s because there’s not enough scrutiny. All sorts of firewalls are put up to protect the government from the press, the most important of which is party finance legislation, of which we have none. Both the ruling party and their handmaidens in the opposition (stand up, Zille!) made damn sure the press would never know who acts as the Money behind the Power, thereby unraveling the very fabric of our democracy.

By the very nature of governing South Africa, Zuma gets a free ride. By the very nature of governing South Africa, Zuma is corrupt.

But corruption, sadly, is the least of Zuma’s sins. South Africa isn’t Mordor, but it’s a bad place full of bad people who keep getting badder. Zuma’s financial record is abysmal. If you groove on gross domestic product (GDP) growth, the prez has delivered an average of 1.7% a year. (He has long promised 5%.) If you groove on employment, Zuma has delivered a massive uptick. (Real unemployment is over 40-freaking-percent.) Debt-to-GDP ratio has doubled from 23% in 2008 to 42,8%.  (Zuma blames this on factors “outside his control.”) If you dig education, healthcare or clean government, Zuma has been worse than a disaster. The labour movement is all but finished. The communists have been purchased wholesale. The white minority still possesses most of the nation’s individual wealth, and the economy, which ticks over like a neo-liberal’s wet dream, is designed to maintain inequality. (I recently had the displeasure of hearing Koos Bekker speak at a function. It’s time for new billionaires, bro.)

Ideological honesty or consistency has been wiped from the ANC, all in the service of protecting the presidency and the systems of patronage it promulgates. Gwede Mantashe, Baleka Mbete, Cyril Ramaphosa—all of them commit hara-kiri on a daily basis in service of their master. Careers ruined, legacies tarnished, history enraged. Mandela is turning in his, etc, etc, etc.

But never mind all that — the way some mofos are forced to live in this country! Zuma is president of the second most uneven society on Earth if you go by Gini-coefficient. The thing is, if you work as a journalist in this country, you don’t need the statistics to see the hellfire. Part of what makes journos such arch miserable-ists is the constant, unending vileness we see on the ground — all ultimately attributable to the government, and the man who heads it up. You don’t get to be head of state and not be blamed for the shit.

Surf a desk and you get to ignore all of this and concentrate on the Good Story.

Indeed, there is lots more Motale doesn’t mention: Zuma’s recent dog whistle hollaback to King Goodwill Zwelithini, following the Zulu regent’s tacit calls for xenophobic violence; the proposed secrecy bill, which would finally allow Motale to be jailed for being mean to his president; the use of the Waterkloof military base by the Guptas as parking lot for a family wedding. And many more. Fireable offences all.

(Parenthetical before we move to the coup de grace: we must acknowledge that editors in this country — black editors in particular — are under enormous pressure from government lackeys to temper their “messaging”. But editors everywhere are under pressure from government lobbyists and henchfolk — it’s the nature of the job. And, as Motale suggests, Zuma’s SA is not Putin’s Russia. Editors don’t get whacked here. It requires a very specific type of person to survive this vice-like intensity, and The Citizen seems uncommonly cursed in this regard. As Motale notes, his predecessor Martin Williams split for the DA directly after stepping down, and he got the job because he regularly tongue-bathed Zille and the Blue Army in print. Is Motale’s tongue-bathing similarly a job application?)

Finally, though, we arrive at the part where Motale’s apologia becomes sickening: he doesn’t deign to mention Marikana. Not once. Not even in passing. Marikana is, of course, where any armchair syllogising regarding Zuma’s record hits history’s wall — Zuma, to whom Motale issues an apology, has presided over a massacre of his own people. Zuma’s deputy president, anointed after the massacre, has been implicated in the affair. Not a single member of Zuma’s administration, nor a single police officer, nor a single accidental passerby has been held accountable. None of the victims’ families have been properly compensated. Zuma has repeatedly dismissed demands to properly address the Marikana issue, most recently in Parliament during the question and answer session.

‘Black lives matter?’ Really?

Did Motale think we’d miss this omission? Did he think we’d buy his thesis that whites and clever blacks in “the media” bash Zuma because he’s a polygamist and tends to get married in a grass skirt?

Zuma isn’t responsible for every ill that darkens this benighted land. About that much, Motale is correct. But Sunday marks the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre. Thinking back to 2006 and the very worst conception of a potential Zuma presidency, could anyone have imagined Marikana? Zuma was the commie who was going to hand the country to the working class, not gun them down for asking for a slightly larger sliver of it. No, he’s not Hitler, he’s not Idi Amin, and he’s not Donald Trump. He’s South Africa’s capital’s houseboy, which I suppose is what he was always destined to be.

So nah. It’s not ‘the media’ who owe Zuma an apology. It’s Zuma who owes the South African people a series of detailed mea culpas. Zuma is perfectly correct when he name-checks apartheid as the root of so many of our evils. But it is time Zuma was reminded that legacy isn’t destiny. It’s time he got working. And it’s high time he honours the dead men of Marikana, who will haunt him long after Motale’s letter is assigned to history’s bottomless bin of mealy-mouthed apologias. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider