The one time in the last few years President Jacob Zuma gave an interview, it resulted in an international embarrassment. Truth? Nope. Coherence? Nope. RICHARD POPLAK does some forensic YouTubing, and finds a Trump among the pixels.
I want to go back in time.
Not too far, but given that the news cycle is now measured by the nanosecond with a quantum clock, far enough. Like most days in these times of unpleasantness, today the news was not sluggish. Students were on the march, a man died inside the country’s flagship university, mayhem reigned. And yet, I can’t quit cogitating over an interview President Jacob Zuma gave to CCTV, the Chinese state owned broadcaster, just as winter submitted to the pleasures of spring.
The interview has lodged itself in my hippocampus like a boulder in a shoe: every time I move my head, it inflicts irreparable brain trauma. The occasion was the G20 summit, mid-September, held in the Chinese apocatropolis of Hangzhou. President Zuma was the only African leader present, and was thus fronting for a continent of over one billion souls, an absurd burden to place on any man. That aside, the interview was extraordinary for two reasons:
a) As Ranjeni Munusamy has pointed out in this publication, Zuma no longer gives interviews. His handlers have built an enormous blockhouse for him, and he almost never strays from its airlocked confines. We only encounter him at the occasional press conference, where we are never allowed to ask follow-up questions, or in Parliament, where he trundles through the proceedings in full view of his Republican Guard.
b) Zuma, like Buddha, speaks the language of silence, so no one in this country really knows what he stands for (besides the obvious, of course). Think about this for a second: a sophisticated, populous, middle-income nation with a large international profile has no fucking idea what the president thinks, if he thinks anything at all.
This absence, this God-shaped hole, is the space into which we stuff any manner of political idolatry. It’s the vastness in which we burn tyres, break a bunch of shit, battle political phantoms, make art, make love, make families, try to figure our way through our history, drink until our hangovers become our Weltshmertz.
And so, the CCTV interview. I have watched it many times, and it serves as a reminder of the dangers of not knowing the cypher who ostensibly runs this place. Despite the protestations of Zuma supporters and other paid-up members of the propagupta machinery, all of whom correctly assert that “white monopoly capital” would love to take the dude down, there is one question that permeates the most revealing 18 minutes of Jacob Zuma’s wretched, miserable, useless, violent, endless second term:
How did we come to be led by a shadow?
I have occasionally wondered whether well-known Chinese TV journo, Tian Wei, developed her ultra-soft interview style by lobbing beach balls at a mannequin. She has the teeth of a newborn Koala, and about as much sandpaper as a cashmere pashmina. The questions she put to Jacob Zuma could barely be described as questions – he could have recited the plot to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, including Wookie sounds, and still have got away with it. Over the course of the interview, I sensed her alarm at the utter vapidity of the man in front of her. How do you deal with peak vacuum? Halfway through, she looked like she wanted to quit – not journalism, you understand. Life.
(It should be noted here that while there are accent and language barriers to be considered, Zuma’s camp probably received the questions prior to the interview – there is almost zero probability that he would have agreed to an off-the-cuff TV interview, and even less of a chance CCTV would have asked for one. In other words, Zuma knew what was coming, and either failed to prepare well enough, or failed to prepare at all. Not to get all meta on you, but this fact is important, because it links to embedded hook in the final paragraph of this piece.)
The interview kicked off with deceptive smoothness. Tian lobbed some questions about Africa’s role in the G20. Zuma offered in return a potted history of colonialism, in which he gave the following factually incorrect and, given Chinese sensitivities regarding the matter, impolitic statement:
“Africa, I think, of all the regions in the world, was the only one that was totally colonised.”
Ethiopia, famously, was never colonised. The Indian subcontinent, however, was. The Middle East? Um, East frigging Asia?
Zuma blundered forward into further legacy-defining ignorance.
“South Africa does not represent itself only,” he said, “it represents the continent, and therefore it speaks on behalf of the continent.”
Muhammadu Buhari would no doubt totally agree with that statement.
Next up, a conversation about the BRICS bank, the “alternative” to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that will, according to Zuma, pay for African infrastructure development, about which, “Africa has agreed.” Nothing he was saying at this point was even vaguely coherent, and Ms Tian was forced to help him along in a few places. Which brought us to the following exchange:
Tian: “So what do you think is the approach that African countries, including yours, should adopt in order to have industrialisation?”
Zuma: “Well, there are many things that we need to do. The question of industrialisation in our own continent has one side only, does not have a negative side.”
But industrialisation has many negative sides – even Tian, who is at risk of execution by firing squad should she step too far out of line, basically flipped out at the simplicity of his answer. Zuma did not mention tech, the green economy, the service sector, or any of the other Davos shibboleths 21st century African leaders now parrot without even thinking. Remember: Zuma had probably received exactly this question in advance. He knew it was coming. It was a no-brainer.
So, it is thus bracing to hear that the country that speaks for Africa is being governed from the 19th century.
Perhaps weirdest of all was Zuma’s mannerisms. He appeared to be tweaking on a combo of uppers and downers, as if he was trying to kill the nyaope high with a jug of Nyquil. His pate was sweaty, he tugged at his nose, he shifted back and forth in his seat. Regardless of how inocuous the question, he reacted as if Tian had blindsided him with the particulars of the Khwezi case. He karate-chopped the air while making weird hip-hoppish gun gestures.
His summation of South African democracy was insane, and he seemed stumped at citing any ANC luminaries other than Nelson Mandela or OR Tambo.
But where Zuma really shone was on the economy. Fear not, Occupied Azania, you’re in good hands:
“Well, this is part of what we we’ve been discussing as the G20, as to what do we do to boost up the economy, to if you want, ‘reignite’ the economy, what is that we can do. And I think the proposals coming from China through the president were very clear, that we need to break and look at innovation as a critical driver of the economic growth and you must have inclusive economic growth. There are many other kinds of things that people are looking at. How do we do the situation, how do we create jobs?”
“Right,” said Tian. By this point, she too was sweating.
Everything about this interview felt like parody. The editing seemed off: Tian and Zuma seemed to occupy a different dimension; the footage looked like a mash-up of high-end digital and low-end flip-phone.
But this, finally, was the real Jacob Zuma, late in his tenure as South Africa’s fourth and worst democratically elected president, at his best – which is to say, his worst.
“Characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner,” wrote Aristophanes, back in 424 BC. This is where we find links between Zuma and other low-rent populists. For instance: last night, a fat blowhard thug faced off against a hawkish neoliberal in a contest for the biggest job in the world, and the planet’s asshole quotient was once again raised beyond measure. Donald Trump is straight out of Aristophanes’ playbook – a moron dressed up as a regular guy dressed up as a moron. He boasted about his lack of preparation for the debate, and his entitlement is such that he is now blaming his poor performance on what? His microphone. He sniffed obsessively, he made spastic gestures, he was incoherent, he lied, he was childish, petulant, and probably jacked on prescription medication.
As I watched the debate, Jacob Zuma’s legendary CCTV interview came to mind. We have our own traditionalist, nativist, backward-looking, xenophobic, thieving, grasping pretender, and they’re pretty much all the same. History, as Aristophanes might have put it, is little more than an endless Jacob Zuma CCTV interview. The know-nothing fool is too often the winner, and it sets the species back every time.
If you want to understand the mess we’re in, put that CCTV interview on repeat. No defence of Zuma’s record can stand up to its lethal, toxic vapidity. DM
Photo: A frame grab from CCTV interview with President Jacob Zuma.
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.