Understanding President Zuma
Should Africans feel empathy for South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma for being the constant subject of caricature and ridicule by the white-controlled media in that country?
Should we at all feel anything for him for being derisively depicted with exposed, dangling genitals in that infamous painting that ranked as the worst ever debasement of a serving President anywhere in the world?
The essence of that painting was not just self-hate in form and content, but was a clear stereotypical representation of blacks as dunderheads, animalistic and possessed with an inherent insatiable desire for sex.
In light of all this, should we have any reservoir of empathy for President Jacob Zuma, who sadly has gone out of his way to protect these same whites while leaving blacks living in abject poverty?
How are we supposed to feel when Zuma says that “we must not think like Africans” and that Johannesburg’s highways are not “some national road in Malawi”?
The most natural response from most Africans is to laugh when President Zuma is caricatured by the white media in South Africa.
However, I am inclined to feel sorry for President Zuma.
I am not sorry because the white media lampoon him at every turn. Rather, I am sorry because of his monumental failure to recognise the devastating effects his words and actions have on young, impressionable minds still striving to assert their blackness and Africanness in a world that believes nothing good can come out of Africa unless whites are involved.
As a Head of State, he should not be making such “don’t think like an African” statements and then expect the continent to take him seriously.
Such remarks can have devastating results on a fragile continent that is still trying to find its place in the world.
And this is coming from a Head of State who counts the likes of Steve Bantu Biko and Chris Hani as his countrymen.
Is this the same country of Oliver Tambo and that young anti-Afrikaans activist Hector Peterson who lost his life trying to assert his blackness in a country which used his skin colour to deny him his humanity?
As shocking as his words are, we are forced to summon every ounce of sobriety and desist from carrying out a hurried crucifixion of President Zuma.
But even in our sobriety we can’t treat President Zuma’s words with kids’ gloves.
The fairest thing to do as we try to come to terms with President Zuma’s disparaging remarks is to try and skin out this native son’s upbringing and see whether there are any loose ends now manifesting themselves as maladjusted thought processes at the subconscious and subliminal level.
We need to look at his participation in the struggle against apartheid and the odds that he faced as he ascended to the highest political office in the “Rainbow Nation”.
President Zuma is a self-taught, streetwise guy with no apparent mentor during his formative years as he lost his father while still quite young.
While most of his peers were attending school, the young Zuma was herding cattle and teaching himself how to speak and write Zulu.
This is not to say his childhood was all gloomy.
But one can easily trace his acquisition of survival skills to those turbulent years, and this was to prove essential in the volatile world of politics during and after the struggle against apartheid.
It explains why President Zuma has managed to fend off many challenges to his career and freedom in recent years.
President Zuma must have learnt early on not to let his lack of formal education make him feel inadequate when dealing with university graduates.
But given his recent utterances, one can be forgiven for positing that maybe his presumed affinity to African culture, traditions and customs – particularly those of the Zulu – is nothing but a façade meant primarily to construct an image of a simple pastoral man so in touch with the common man, when in fact at a subconscious level he aspires to be something different.
President Zuma’s celebration of e-tolls as a sign of advancement is typical of what Frantz Fanon calls the black man’s envy of the white man’s world and its glitter as “visible symbols of power”.
Fanon says that for many blacks being white is the ultimate achievement in the world, while forgetting that the real symbols of power are capital and land.
It becomes unavoidable to compare President Zuma to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in terms of who better represents the African agenda in the global village.
While we can assume that Former President Mbeki’s sub-consciousness is a product of his years in exile, President Zuma’s perspective could have been shaped by the constant and abrasive gut-rot life endured in the townships and the rural areas of apartheid South Africa.
Mbeki’s perspective transcended his geographical borders as seen in his African Renaissance project.
President Zuma, on the other hand, seems to think very little of Africa and being African.
Perhaps, for him, being African – to borrow from writer Charles Mungoshi in “Waiting for the rain – is both a biological and geographical error.
Certainly, Mbeki’s intellectual prowess and his awareness of the broader African cause was seen by his adversaries as an affront to the immediate needs of ordinary South Africans.
They clutched on to his “dissident” views on issues like HIV and AIDS as an indication of his lack of grasp of what was closest to ordinary South Africans.
They exploited all his perceived rough-edges to create an artificial wedge with the ordinary person in South Africa.
And his adversaries found a common ally in the white media that presented Mbeki as intellectually aloof, a “Mugabeist” and a dreamer.
Zuma, who was then on the political fringes after being sacked as Deputy President on allegations of corruption, capitalised on the discord and built an image of a practical man who had been victimised by elites.
It was good political strategy, whatever one may think of Mbeki and Zuma.
This is how South Africa and Africa found themselves with a President Zuma.
We should ask ourselves why white liberals like Helen Suzman gleefully greeted Zuma’s rise. Did they know something about this man that the rest of us missed?
The mental decolonisation project envisaged by the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o remains unfinished business.
We still exist in that “nervous condition” that Fanon spoke of in “The Wretched of the Earth”.
Fanon instructively reminds us; “So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.
“Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation which would be almost an obscene caricature.”
Yes, indeed we must feel sorry for President Zuma as he may be quite unaware of the issues at play, the politics that defines us at a sub-conscious level as Africans who were once colonised.