The overwhelmingly negative reaction of the majority of South Africans to the recent news that President Jacob Zuma had had unprotected sex (and had fathered a child) with the daughter of a friend who was not his wife (shortly before marrying his third wife) took me by surprise. As Steven Friedman pointed out last week, Zuma is a polygamist and it has been public knowledge that he has had multiple sexual partners and many children, so why the fuss?
Why the sudden rush to judgment? Have we all suddenly turned into moralistic and judgmental prudes?
Eusebius McKaiser suggested – wrongly, I suspect – that the condemnation of the President was something that the “chattering classes” indulged in and (like Steven Friedman) suggested that the latest revelations about the sexual antics of our President will have no effect of his standing among the masses. McKaiser continued:
Zuma has much more important weaknesses that should give us cause for concern. For example, does he have the capacity to speak confidently to important policy questions – foreign policy, climate change, crime, education, health etc.? Does he have the capacity to strike a balance between his famed penchant for listening and showing clear leadership in relation to tensions within the alliance? Can he put a view of his own – and not one that is handed to him by the African National Congress – on any of the sexy issues of the day, like nationalisation of the mines, for example? I very much doubt Zuma’s leadership on these fronts. An assessment of his character in relation to these challenges is much more important than whether or not he is a paragon of moral virtue.
If his bedroom life could shed light on whether he can lead us effectively on these policy fronts, then details about his sexuality would take on more obvious relevance. But they do not. Whether or not Zuma had sex with Sonono Khoza does not tell me whether he has the ability to steer us through a recession. It just tells me that he is a ‘player’ like many of us.
I suspect that McKaiser has it exactly wrong on this score. South Africans of all stripes (not only the chattering classes) can be quite moralistic (at least in public) but we also love an underdog and most of us are relatively quick to forgive. For goodness, sake some people even forgave Andriaan Vlok for being the Minister of Police in apartheid South Africa and for trying to poison Frank Chikane – and all Vlok had to do was wash Chikane’s feet.
While Zuma was embroiled in a titanic battle with Thabo Mbeki and his cohorts, many South Africans rooted for Zuma. He was the underdog taking on Mbeki – the mighty leader of the ANC, the intellectual bully of note, the President of the country. Zuma had convinced many people – from the Cosatu leadership to newspaper columnists to rank and file ANC members – that Mbeki and his allies had conspired against him. He was being persecuted to ensure that he never becomes President.
It was therefore easy to forgive him. It was also easy to gloss over the uncomfortable truth regarding his corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik and his inappropriate relationship with the daughter of a friend because he was under attack. After all, he was a victim – just like all black South Africans had been victims of apartheid, racism and oppression.
But Zuma has been President for eight months now and he has appointed his confidants as Ministers of Police and State Security, as Commissioner of Police and as National Director of Public Prosecutions. There can be no question anymore of a conspiracy against Zuma as he is in charge of the country.
But his performance as President of the country has at best been lacluster. He has made many flamboyant promises but he has not taken many difficult but necessary decisions that may have alienated any of the factions that came together at Polokwane to unseat Mbeki. He has promised the creation of 500 000 jobs by the end of last year – yet 1 million people had actually lost their jobs instead. He promised to root out corruption in the civil service and in the granting of tenders and to subject his Minister to performance contracts – but corruption has increased and Ministers have not signed such contracts.
Last year, in what was hailed as a welcome break with previous government practice, Zuma made an unannounced visit to the Siyathemba township outside Balfour after service delivery protests and later announced measures that would address the community’s demands. Monitoring and Evaluation Minister Collins Chabane, who visited the area soon after Zuma, promised residents that a boarding school for 85 pupils, and an education and training college, would be established in the area. He said the hours of the local Home Affairs office would be extended. Yet nothing happened: there is no boarding school, no college, no improvement in the work-ethic of home affairs officials, no improvement in the lives of the people of Siyathemba.
I suspect this disconnection between the promises and the actual deeds of the Zuma government lies at the heart of the harsh criticism of Zuma’s promiscuity. Just as we believed the President when he apologised in 2006 for sleeping with the daughter of a friend and said he was sorry, we also believed him last year when he made all the promises of how his government would do things differently and make things better.
We were dreaming, of course: Out would go the failed policies of heartless old Thabo and his cronies. In would come the caring, confident and efficient Zuma administration to fix the education and the health care systems and service delivery problems, the corruption and nepotism. We would all live happily ever after. But these problems are not easily fixed and at the very least require decisive, brave and principled leadership. This kind of leadership has been completely absent from the Zuma government.
So for most people nothing seemed to have changed. Whether one is a member of the chattering classes or an unemployed youth in Siyathemba township, it is difficult not to feel some apprehension about the gap between the wonderful rhetoric of President Zuma and his government (on HIV, on corruption, on service delivery) on the one hand, and the rather dismal and depressing reality of the non-realisation of these promises on the other.
I suspect that when South Africans learnt that Zuma yet again had unprotected sex out of wedlock with a friend’s daughter, many were incensed not only because they were ready to judge the President on moral grounds. Instead many of us saw parallels between this scandal and the President’s performance as head of state. While he had claimed to be a pastor in church and had endorsed the government’s HIV prevention policy in public, he had behaved in a manner in private that fundamentally contradicted this public persona and utterances. This looked eerily similar to the disconnection between the many promises he and his government Ministers have made to us over the past eight months and the reality of broken promises and business as usual politics.
For many South Africans Zuma’s bedroom life could indeed shed light on his ability to lead us effectively, as it seems to demonstrate quite starkly that he is a man who would say anything, promise anything, and do anything when the camera lights are trained on him, but would often do exactly the opposite when no one was looking.
The President’s sexual indiscretions became a metaphor for the larger indiscretions of his government and underlined the stark fact that we had elected as our President someone whose words could seldom if ever be trusted. Whether this will ultimately mean the end of Zuma’s political career I cannot say. What I do know is that recent revelations about Zuma’s private life have fundamentally eroded the President’s credibility, exactly because it mirrored the way in which he runs the government and the party that he is president of.