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Jacob Zuma has pulled us into the noisy arena of South...

Defend Truth


Jacob Zuma has pulled us into the noisy arena of South Africa’s competition of hyperbole


David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

There’s just something about Jacob Zuma that calls one to participate in South Africa’s competition of hyperbole. So many do so without being asked to. The man seems to have a gravitational pull all of his own. His son Edward understands this and orbits around his father like a newly discovered moon of Jupiter.

After Jacob Zuma was ordered to be imprisoned for 15 months by the Constitutional Court last week, South Africa’s competition of hyperbole began. Qualifiers had been taking place indiscriminately as if the chance to compete might never arrive. Some of the hopefuls are Zuma, Ace Magashule, those conspiracy theorists by the beach, Julius Malema, Malusi Gigaba, Carl Niehaus, Piet Rampedi and others. Perhaps we’re all eager to participate.

In South Africa’s competition of hyperbole, contradiction is embraced, courage an afterthought. There are no tickets – entry is free. The goal is to be devoted: to personality and spectacle. Deflection is encouraged, for it reaffirms the need to be dramatically inquisitive. Telling the truth only matters if it enables one to shout louder and elevate one’s voice to a higher frequency above the humdrum of contemplation and reflection.

Given the recent judgment handed down by the Constitutional Court, it’s tempting to think the arena for this competition is the Zuma homestead in Nkandla. Boisterous fans are already there, duped by the contradictory belief that Zuma cares about them at all. But he doesn’t actually have the courage to care because their devotion – to his cult of personality and the spectacle of defending their guy – is what matters most.

The arena, however, is bigger – it encompasses the entirety of South Africa. We’re all spectators whether we want to admit it or not because, at this point, it seems only a spectacle will get us reoriented on the right track. Or, we’re no longer interested, which might be worse.

Before dissecting some of the key competitors and speculating about whatever the potential meanings of this competition are, it’s important to reflect on one of the key enablers of the competition: the media. Any meaningful competition needs coverage, ink – lots of it – and tweets. Spectacle is good for the media, especially one that elevates the loudest voices, as if the louder one shouts the deeper one’s contribution is.

When convicted criminal Andile Lungisa says “to hell with the decision” from the Constitutional Court, calling for a nationwide shutdown in support of Zuma instead, he’s alluding to the broad arena of this competition and benefiting from the role played by the media. Lungisa who, lest we forget, smashed a glass jug over the head of a Democratic Alliance politician, prefers force over argumentation. “If police they’ve got bullets, they must kill all of us,” said Lungisa, since “there is no way any system that tampers with justice should have a place.”

Most articles on News24, like this one about the rising prevalence of the Delta variant in the Western Cape offering information about rising infection rates, are behind a paywall – but not the piece about Lungisa. That piece generates traffic and traffic generates revenue.

Then again: who am I to talk? The article has been open as a tab on my browser for quite some time now and surely reflects in the metrics as an engaged interaction. Am I alone? Are we attracted to a spectacle like moths to a flame?

There’s just something about Zuma that calls one to participate in South Africa’s competition of hyperbole. So many do so without being asked to. The man seems to have a gravitational pull all of his own.

His son Edward understands this and orbits around his father like a newly discovered moon of Jupiter. “Whatever decisions are taken by law enforcement,” said Edward to the eager media outside of Nkandla, “they will have to kill me before such a decision is implemented”.

As for Covid-19 regulations, Edward said “we can’t be considering Covid-19 restrictions. If it means we die, we die, we are prepared to die.” Demanding the rule of law be applied to his father impartially means contradictorily breaking others. Edward knows what’s at stake in this competition is devotion and attention – what counts is shouting the loudest – not integrity.

Media culpability aside, the competition of hyperbole requires a cast of characters like Edward. Bathabile Dlamini, who is no stranger to hyperbolic competition, is another. She remarked last week that when courts get involved “in political issues they have to take the side of those they support”. Like so many of us, especially those in the African National Congress, she’s “shocked”, but for different reasons: the contradictory decisions of “the way people use the courts to defend wrongdoing”, like avoiding them altogether.

Of course, “the court”, as if it were a singular institution, isn’t all that inconvenient, is it? (Never mind the court of public opinion.) Zuma, one of the heavyweights in the competition of hyperbole, is aware of this despite his contradictory apprehension of them which is why he said in April he’s “ready to become a prisoner of the Constitutional Court”.

His preference for contradiction is why, on Friday, 2 July 2021, he filed an urgent application for the rescission of the Constitutional Court’s ruling. The court accepted this application, delaying the timeline of when Zuma will face imprisonment – ensuring the competition will continue.

Although Zuma is an individual, he’s a key member of the African National Congress. For the better part of “nine lost years”, a chorus of voices in the African National Congress defended him. This is a party that prefers to speak with a single voice and likes to compete in the arena of hyperbole. Remember their good story to tell?

In its statement following the judgment, the African National Congress “noted” the Constitutional Court’s ruling. They acknowledged how “this is a difficult period in the movement”, but not the country.

I’m not sure what kind of story the African National Congress can tell now. Is overcoming itself – again – part of some new chapter? Could Zuma heading to jail enable other figures wrapped up in the wide net of corruption to wield the imprisonment of one as the exoneration of the many?

There’s so much noise. Who among us can keep track of it all, anyway?

Whatever the case may be, South Africa is in a competition of hyperbole – and part of it has to do with the fact that the rule of law even needs to be affirmed in such a historic fashion. Are we interested in a conclusion to it? Would it satisfy us for a winner to be declared and, therefore, a loser? I wonder if we realise we too are participating in this competition. DM


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  • The Court’s acceptance of Zuma’s application for the rescission does not suspend his sentence nor the associated deadlines (5 days and 3 days). Those remain in force. An interdict by the Pietermaritzburg High Court would temporarily stop the process but it seems unlikely a lower court could suspend a ruling by the apex court. Perhaps the water is sufficiently muddied for the police to be “confused” into inaction until after the Concourt has confirmed its verdict. That would be a significant failure on the part of the police, but not much of a surprise unfortunately.

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