Jacob Zuma: The man who walks in two worlds

by The Editor

JacobZumaSPEECH: This past Thursday I delivered an address on President Jacob Zuma to The Cape Town Press Club. For those interested, a copy of that speech follows below. It speaks to some of the themes identified in my book, “Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla: The real Jacob Zuma in his own words”, and looks at the extent to which the fourth estate meaningfully interrogates Zuma’s various problematic religious and cultural convictions.

19 JUNE 2014

“Jacob Zuma: The man who walks in two worlds”

For many President Jacob Zuma constitutes a conundrum:

In his professional capacity he sits at the apex of a democracy that boasts one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and which has as its centrepiece a Bill of Human Rights that embodies the best of enlightenment thinking; and yet, in his personal capacity, he often and repeatedly advocates a series of beliefs that seemingly run in the opposite direction, from the virtues of virginity testing, to a subservient role for women, to the notion that his party is sanctioned by God.

How does one reconcile these two things?

How does one, for example, expect a president to authentically argue in public that every citizen has the freedom and choice to exercise their own political discretion when, just as publically, he proffers the privately held conviction that their will is not, in fact, theirs at all – rather that it is merely the extension of some divine authority? Indeed, not just predetermined but that any contrary view is punishable by eternal damnation?

The truth is those two views are irreconcilable.

Democratic choice and divine will are mutually exclusive ideas, and yet they co-exist in the public rhetoric of our president, each given equal standing and weight. And, just to be clear, the problem is not Zuma’s private religious convictions themselves – every citizen is entitled to those – but the very public prominence he gives them and the authority his office lends to them in turn.

And make no mistake – his words reverberate throughout society. Zuma has repeatedly stated, for example, that, “what we do not do is participate in influencing [government] to make the laws that are keeping with the values of God.”

That is a sentiment recently echoed by no less than the Chief Justice. He might not have been speaking at Zuma behest but certainly he will have known he enjoyed the President’s support.

To deal with this contradiction, a great many public commentators have produced a great many theories. These vary in nature and scope but, generally speaking, each can be placed into one of two categories.

On the one hand, there is the pragmatic perspective.

This explanation would have us believe that Jacob Zuma is a canny and savvy political operator, who knows exactly what message resonates with what audience and, when he praises some questionable cultural or religious practice – Venda women bowing and scraping before him, for example – he knows exactly what he is doing.

There is much truth to this.

Zuma is a demagogue and a populist, at his most comfortable stirring the emotions of a crowd.

But this is not the point those who evoke this explanation are trying to make; for there is much that is critical to be said about demagoguery too.

No, this is a defence. It is meant as a compliment. The notion is that this kind of rhetoric is a requirement of popular politics in South Africa and Zuma is a master at this particular game. He means no principled harm, the argument goes; he is merely talking the same language so many in South Africa speak. And kudos to him for being so street smart.

On the other hand, the second broad category views these problematic statements through a constitutional lens.

Seen in this way, they appear abhorrent. There is no constitutional perspective that agrees with the view that gay marriage, for example, is a disgrace before the nation and God, as Zuma has suggested.

And so those who would advocate such an interpretation rightly balk at many of his private convictions and express much outrage at the respective sentiment and its implications.

The inference of the more pragmatic defence offered by some is that the possibility exists that Zuma does not, in fact, believe what he says. That, in his heart of hearts, he understands God does not endorse political parties and that a “national cleansing ceremony”, to quote another of his suggestions, will not actually result in a new morality.

It follows that such an explanation excuses Zuma of responsibility for his public statements, as it dismisses them all as political word games and grants Zuma the benefit of a principled moral code, unseen but underpinning it all.

That, I believe, is a mistake. And I think it speaks poorly of the fourth estate that, to the best of my knowledge, never once has Jacob Zuma been forced to account in an interview for these more problematic private views he so publically flaunts with all the authority his professional office vests in him.

But that fact also tells a story.

There exist a great many invisible parameters to South African debate. They act to hedge in the questions we ask and to limit the depth and breadth of critical interrogation and oversight.

They have become so well entrenched over time and carry with them the weight of such enormous orthodoxy and political correctness, many are seemingly aware they exist at all.

Some of them are slowly being revealed. We are more courageous now in dismissing the race card when it is unfairly deployed than at any other time in our recent past.

For years it never occurred to many that, in a country understandably rife with low self-esteem and deep-seated racial sensitivities, those in power might regularly manipulate this fact to their political advantage, doing a disservice to genuine concerns when they do. We still have some way to go on that front but our conversations about race have become more mature.

Others parameters, however, remain too sensitive for us to have a meaningful, open and frank conversation about. Of these, perhaps the greatest is culture.

There are many cultural practices in South Africa today that have no place in a constitutional democracy.

Yet “culture”, the very word, is so loaded with hypersensitivity, rarely do we put it front and centre in the national debate. We daren’t debate it, or risk “offence”, an idea that has become a byword for intolerance and closed thinking.

Take, by way of illustration, initiation, a practice as ubiquitous and diverse in its nature as South Africa itself. You find it everywhere: in school locker rooms, in university residences, in the rural periphery, even in the Springbok change room. Out of the many and varied cultures in South Africa, few have failed to make a special place for this particular pastime.

What is the point of this kind of initiation?

Those who defend it, usually those who have been initiated themselves or inflicted it upon another, would have us believe it is part of the passage to manhood – a noble venture. To be sure it is generally a masculine affair. But that is to veil petty brutality behind a mask of ostensible virtue.

It is, in truth, at best a means of belittling and degrading; at worst a physical assault on one’s being, the results of which can be deadly, whether you are tarred and feathered or have part of your penis chopped off with a blunt hack blade.

There is nothing that initiation can teach a person, compassion, wisdom and reason cannot match and surpass.

The many healthy, happy individuals who walk amongst us, who have never known such a practice, evidence that simple fact.

Initiation is about power: who has it, how they wield it and to whom they are willing to part it. But it is also a fiction, for if that power is self-actualisation, that resides a great many places no one person or institution can ever claim to hold absolute authority over. More to the point, they cannot withhold it either.

Last year around 40 people died as a result of one particular form of traditional initiation practiced in and around the Eastern Cape.

Most of the deaths were caused by assault, septicaemia, dehydration, renal failure and respiratory complications. South Africa has many different killing seasons, this one is particularly primitive.

It is encouraging that, over recent years, debate on the subject has become more common and open. It is discouraging that death is what necessitated that. But the nature of that debate, like so much of the discussion around Jacob Zuma’s private convictions, is pragmatic in nature.

The point is made many of these deaths are the result of rouge initiation schools, which care little for tradition and have perverted a respectable practice.

Questions have been asked about how the state should respond. The former ANC chief whip even produced a spirited defence of best traditional practice, evoking no less than the name of Mandela himself.

But here is the thing: the emperor has no clothes. If we are a society as heavily invested in the Bill of Human Rights as we claim to be, the starting point for any such discussion, from the school ground locker room to the Eastern Cape, should be on what grounds can this kind of initiation be defended in any of its forms?

No doubt there do exist many forms of initiation entirely devoid of fear, intimidation, coercion or punitive consequence.

The test of this is a simple one: can any individual opt out of any such practice without fear of the consequences? That is, will their decision not to take part result in no stigma or reprisal to their detriment?

If they cannot, the practice inevitably has attached to it some kind of coercion and, whether subtle or profound, that is to denude free will of its worth.

How, you might ask, does this relate to president Jacob Zuma? The problem is the same.

Often, we do not interrogate those more problematic traditional or religious beliefs Zuma puts forward. Not every one of his private convictions are problematic in this way, many are harmless. Certainly a great many of them seem particular to him and not widely shared or sanctioned. But a significant number are ethically or morally contemptible and, for most part, he is allowed free passage because what he says falls into that loaded politically correct grey zone in which few are willing to tread.

Zuma himself discourages criticism of his personal beliefs. Where the “race card” once reigned supreme, we now have the “cultural card”. He puts it like this:

“The problem is that people have got particular religions, values and beliefs – and people give themselves the authority to be judgmental against others and other cultures. Who gives individuals – no matter who they are – the right to be judgmental because they believe in certain cultures and values?”

This conflation of the right to be judgemental and the quality of that judgement is the calling card of many the world over who wish to negate critical interrogation in the name of offence. It is a kind of bullying. The truth is any one has the right to make a judgement, certainly to be critical.

In fact, a healthy society is one constantly engaged in peer review and self-reflection. It is a static society, not a dynamic one, which outlaws such things and one on a sure path to stagnation at that. When a society loses the ability to reflect, that is fertile ground for authorarianism and tyranny to take root.

The value of your judgement, however, and how it is received depends on its veracity. If it is grounded in reason, based on evidence and has at its heart the desire to progress and advance thought, discussion and behaviour, it should never be dismissed, however critical the conclusion it arrives at.

But Zuma would seem to want to avoid such an appraisal from first principles. There are no circumstances, he seems to suggest, in which one individual might arrive at a critical conclusion about a personal belief he holds to be true. Too many buy this line of thinking.

It is also to elevate the offence of some over the offense of others. It is perfectly legitimate to take offense at something recalcitrant Zuma might say. Simply because it is based on a cultural or religious conviction does not mean your offence at his remark is any less valuable or legitimate than the offense Zuma might take at your criticism of it.

It all depends on the strength of the argument you make in support of it – a truth that applies just as equally to Zuma himself.

We are in danger of developing a hierarchy of offense in South Africa and, at the top of the pile, are those who cry loudest about their deeply held personal beliefs, regardless of their nature. They have become emboldened by this and cry louder still until no one dare speak up in opposition for fear of the resultant noise.

It is also the position of a man who wishes to avoid responsibility and, where appropriate, accountability. And it is cowardly too; for, if Zuma has a defense, he certainly has a duty to provide it with the same alacrity he promotes the original position.

We should not cower away from asking these questions. And if such questions necessitate a discussion wider than Jacob Zuma, all the better for it – there is much to discuss.

If the constitution and the Bill of Human Rights are the nexus around which these contradictions between Zuma’s private and public self play themselves out, it makes sense too that his attitude to the constitution itself should be duplicitous.

It is always two things to Jacob Zuma: the democratic pinnacle of a democracy over which he presides and to which he can proudly point; and a source of endless frustration, a bulwark that often acts to prevent his impulses from enjoying greater freedom.

In his own mind he reconciles these two things thusly: the constitution belongs to the ANC. Its creation was facilitated by the ANC, its nature reflects the ANC’s wishes and it exists at all because the ANC allows it. As a result, he believes the ANC to be, in his own words, “more important” than the constitution.

It follows that as the ultimate representative of that party, in his mind the authentic will of the people – indeed, the will of God – it matters not if he contradicts the constitution or subverts its authority. He believes he speaks with the authority of something with a much greater history and more organic legitimacy than a mere collection of recently written words.

This prompts the following question: what is the moral landscape from Jacob Zuma’s balcony?

It seems ad hoc and temporary.

To be sure there are a set of convictions, some religious, some cultural, some constitutional but no coherent and cogent set of principles and values he can and does point to as the guide by which he structures his vision for the country and the government.

His public record is littered with contradictions on key moral issues as a result: He can be for the death penalty and against it; he can both embrace Robert Mugabe and berate him; he can suggest we do away with bail for some serious offences – “There should be no bail for them and the punishment they get needs upgrading”; and he can, as he said in 2008, state “I would prefer to leave after one term [as president]” and, yet, in the face of the biggest corruption scandal a president has ever faced in post democratic South Africa, stubbornly secure a second.

In perhaps one his most sadly ironic statements, he would go so far as to suggest in 2002 that judges should convict a supposed criminal “even if there are facts that are short”.

A constant unanswered question with everything Jacob Zuma says, is where he would be if his own standards were applied to himself.

As a result of all this, the answer to the question, what is the moral code that defines Jacob Zuma’s personal worldview, is that it depends entirely on what you want to hear. He is a man for all seasons.

This point has been well made in the mainstream media but it is worth repeating against the background I have laid out because it demonstrates that these problematic private convictions he advocates are not moral in nature.

They are not his way of distinguishing right from wrong or good from bad.

They are simply the way of things, handed down from father to son, or God to pastor. There is a moral and ethical vacuum at the heart of Jacob Zuma’s politics.

He has filled that vacuum with a great many things: the ANC, religion, culture but there is no framework that holds them altogether and the one framework you might expect him to embrace, indeed the very one he is charged with upholding, enjoys a lowly position on his hierarchy of needs.

To return then, to the question I posed at the outset of this speech: Why is it a mistake to dismiss Jacob Zuma’s problematic statements as inconsequential?

I hope I have provided two answers.

The first is that, if one holds the constitution and the Bill of Human Rights as the archetype for the principles and values by which we wish to abide as a society, one has a moral obligation to fiercely contest those utterances that run contrary to it, no matter who makes them or the context.

This might require some bravery and for us to venture into those areas that initiate a range of more difficult questions more broadly, but he is the president and, as such, he invites such a discussion when he speaks.

The second is that not to do so is to misunderstand Jacob Zuma. It is to blindly accept that underpinning his politics is a personal moral and ethical framework that does justice to the constitutional office he holds. The truth is, what evidence there is suggests that, while Zuma undoubtedly believes much that virtuous and good, it is supplemented by a great many personal opinions that do damage to the constitutional principles by which we all should aspire to live.

For all the great emphasis we place on history in South Africa it is remarkable just how ahistorical we are.

My book is an attempt to demonstrate that, seen over time and when collected together, these statements speak powerfully to a highly problematic set of personal beliefs.

Every time Jacob Zuma mentions the ANC and Jesus we play the same record over again. The same outrage. The same condemnation. But we never take it any further. We never interrogate the sentiment itself, or force him to engage with the broader context into which it fits; more often we explain it away.

Until we are prepared to do that we sacrifice some of our right to take offence at what Zuma says. And that is exactly the way he likes it.

Jacob Zuma is a man of two worlds. Everyday he walks with one foot firmly planted in each. One of these two world, we have become expert in analysing to its finest detail. For an entire political career, he has avoided any meaningful interrogation of the other.

Gareth van Onselen is the author of “Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla: The Real Jacob Zuma in his own words”, published by Jonathan Ball and available online and in print.