The ANC wants us to believe news that President Jacob Zuma has fathered yet another child out of wedlock (and hence that he has had sex with yet another woman who is not one if his wives without using a condom) is a private matter. Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya is quoted as saying that Zuma’s right to privacy: “had clearly been violated…. Does the public’s right to know reign supreme over the individual citizen’s constitutional rights regardless of who they are,” Mgwenya fumed.
Mgwenya’s statement is shockingly anti-democratic and ill-informed. The fact is that President Zuma is not a private citizen like everyone else. He is the leader of the largest party in South Africa and President of the country. As the Constitutional Court has made clear, the right to privacy – like all other rights – are not absolute and not everyone can claim an absolute right to keep their private lives secret, regardless of who they are.
The more public a figure, the less privacy he or she enjoys. If private actions could have public consequences, a public figure enjoys very little privacy regarding those particular actions as this would impoverish our democracy as it would deprive us of information needed to form opinions about our political leaders.
The President is not an ordinary citizen. We pay his salary and we have a constitutional right to know whether his behavior is such that we would want to vote for the party he leads. To argue that this is a private matter is to argue that citizens do not have the right to know what their leaders get up to and what kind of characters they have. It is also to argue that our right to vote for the party of our choice in an informed manner should be trumped by the right to privacy of a man who has chosen to take up the position of president of the country – thereby forfeiting some of his privacy rights.
The view expressed by the ANC is reactionary and disrespectful of voters and if adhered to will potentially hold severe negative consequences for the quality of our democracy. Because Zuma is a public figure and a main player in our politics, he has forfeited some of his privacy. If the ANC does not believe this, they clearly have contempt for the dignity of voters and for the right of voters to make informed choices. The view espoused by Mgwenya thus poses a danger to our democracy and must be rejected with contempt.
The same can of course not be said for the baby President Zuma fathered. That baby did not choose to be fathered by the President and has a right to privacy. It would also be in the best interest of the child to keep his or her identity secret. The Sunday Times was therefore wrong to publish the full names of the baby.
The second – and distinct – question is whether the news that Zuma has fathered another child out of wedlock should be relevant for us when we make choices about whom to vote for. I am not a particularly moralistic person, so personally I would ordinarily say that the sexual adventures of a politician should have little or no bearing on his or her political standing. Normally the fact that a politician had an affair or fathered a child out of wedlock would say very little about his or her ability to govern the country and should not really be of great interest to us voters.
But this changes where the private actions of the politician directly contradict his or her public utterances and the policy positions of the party he or she belongs to or – in the case of President Zuma – leads. When that happens, a politician shows that he or she is a hypocrite and that we cannot trust a word he or she says and, hence, that he or she lacks the necessary character to be a political leader who should enjoy our trust. For example, if the leader of a Reborn Christian party who rails against homosexuality has a gay affair, we should condemn that politician – not because of the gay affair but because of the sheer hypocrisy of the man. Why would we ever believe anything that politician says ever again?
This is why the news of President Zuma’s love child is a big deal.
Our President has made many statements which directly contradicts his private behavior. Talking to religious leaders before the election he said that: “we need to teach our people to fear God… There are many other examples, which illustrate that the historical association of the ANC and the Church cannot be doubted. The ANC practically derived its moral vision from the church amongst other sources”.
As far as I know, very few people believe in a God that condones promiscuity and extra marital affairs, and the moral vision of the church is surely not one that condones extra-marital affairs and fathering children out of wedlock. This creates the impression that our President is a hypocrite who says one thing to church leaders (and pretends that the ANC he leads has a vision in line with church teachings) when he personally does not adhere to that vision. This is usually called lying. I wonder what Ray McCauley (who is just about the divorce his second wife!) thinks about this behavior?
Last year President Zuma also made a brilliant speech on World Aids Day and many of us praised him and commended the ANC for this fresh approach to the disease. The ANC Youth League even launched a “one girlfriend, one boyfriend” campaign as part of this fresh approach to HIV prevention. Zuma himself said:
Our message is simple. We have to stop the spread of HIV. We must reduce the rate of new infections. Prevention is our most powerful weapon against the epidemic… All South Africans should take steps to ensure that they do not become infected, that they do not infect others and that they know their status. Each individual must take responsibility for protection against HIV. To the youth, the future belongs to you.
It does not mean that we should be irresponsible in our sexual practices. It does not mean that people do not have to practice safer sex. It does not mean that people should not use condoms consistently and correctly during every sexual encounter. We can eliminate the scourge of HIV if all South Africans take responsibility for their actions.
After the recent revelations it is far from clear whether President Zuma actually meant what he said. Perhaps President Zuma and the mother of his child both had an HIV test before they started having unprotected sex, but if that is the case we have a right to know. In the absence of such knowledge we will surely be forgiven for believing that the President is an unprincipled hypocrite who says one thing in public and commits the ANC to one policy and then does exactly the opposite in private.
At the very least President Zuma must tell us whether he was irresponsible in his sexual practices and whether he has taken steps to protect himself and his sexual partners from HIV infection. He should tell us whether he has had any other extra-marital sexual relations and whether he has fathered any other children out of wedlock. If he does not, the voters will be well within their rights to judge the President harshly and to conclude that he is a man who cannot be trusted, a man who would say anything to get elected – even if what he says is exactly the opposite of what he does.
This goes to the heart of the character of our President. Either he can be trusted and we can believe what he says, or he cannot be trusted and we should assume that he is a pathological liar. When his private actions suggest that he cannot be trusted, voters have a right to know about those actions. Moreover, they also have a right not to vote for him at the next election – not because he is less “moral” than Mother Theresa, but rather because he is not honest.