My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
This seems to be the most perplexing question of our time: why does Mr Jacob Zuma inspire so much passion in his followers that they claim to be prepared to kill or die for him – what has he actually done or said to justify this extreme reaction to any criticims or perceived attack on him?
It seems to me there are cynical and less cynical answers to this question.
Less cynically, one could argue – as others have done – that Mr Zuma represents the hopes and dreams of those South Africans who feel they have been left behind by, or excluded from, Thabo Mbeki’s new South Africa. Unlike Mbeki, Zuma seems to have the “common touch” – with his standard four education, his shower head, his dancing and singing about his machine gun, and his down to earth demeanor.
Ordinary people who look around them and see snooty, educated, homosexual-loving, godless, cold-hearted and emotionally distant politicians and other elites (of any race) driving around in fancy cars and eating in expensive restaurants when they themselves hardly have enough money to feed themselves or their families and experience prejudice and racism every day, might see Zuma as a person who understands their fears and dreams and would therefore be able to begin to address their social and economic exclusion.
But this does not explain why the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema or ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe seem to have the hots for Zuma. After all, they drive around in flashy cars themselves and have done quite well out of the new South Africa, thank you very much.
In this morning’s Business Day, Xolela Mangcu has a far more cynical explanation for the behaviour of this crowd. For him this has everything to do with the lust for power and money. He argues that the new guys are really out to capture the state – by any means necessary. That is why these guys are prepared to destroy the institutions on which our constitutional democracy depends – they want power and they want it now. According to Mangcu:
This has been the history of SA, with the rule of Nelson Mandela being an exception in a long line of rule by political bullies. Sometimes I wonder what we did to be saddled with such leadership — from the heydays of apartheid to the heydays of postcolonial buffoonery. The cynicism of the language makes the cynicism of the Mbeki years pale into significance. The only difference now is that “enemies” are no longer called coconuts or askaris. They are now simply “counterrevolutionaries” fit for the guillotine or the gun or the knife or whichever instrument is handy. This is the state of our political culture.
But Mangcu – like me – is a paid up member of the chattering classes and maybe we do not understand exactly to what degree the deeply entrenched narratives of race and victimhood play a role in this blind support for a man that is so obviously and so fatally flawed.
In our post-apartheid (but not post-racial or post racist) society, I suspect many ordinary black people still feel (not unreasonably, I should add) that their dreams and aspirations are thwarted by an entrenched elite culture and by institutions and attitudes – call these “dark forces” if you will – (whites in general; bosses; racist colleagues and institutions; the police or the NPA?) and that they are still victims of an apartheid mindset and system.
They think of themselves as victims, feel much aggrieved that they are still victims even after 15 years of freedom, and thus instinctively cheer on the (black) underdogs – those politicians or judges who are attacked and criticised by the “system” – because they see their own struggles reflected in the stories of these “heroes”.
Maybe that is at least one reason why Zuma is so popular and why Judge President John Hlophe is getting support from so many quarters. Their stories of victimhood resonate with many people who also feel that they are the victims of the system who has left them behind. Students who dropped out of school or university because they were never given the tools to cope with the demands of education; workers who are fired because they could not comply with the demands of a first world economy because of an unfamiliar culture or because of a lack of formal education; small time politicians or officials who could not resist the temptations for corruption that their new jobs offered – many such people must surely feel that they are also the victims of an essentially white, elite, world.
Maybe we are a nation of victims. I suspect people like Judge President John Hlophe and Mr Jacob Zuma understand this instinctively (in a way that UK educated Thabo Mbeki cannot) and exploit this to their own advantage.
Even some white South Africans, I think, are jumping on the bandwagon and now often couch their grievances about the new democracy in victimhood terms, claiming to be the victims of affirmative action for example.
This narrative of victimhood is of course dangerous for a democracy because it establishes a kind of moral relativism that will drag us all down into a cesspit of corruption and grievance. But until enough people in South Africa feel that they have truly benefited from freedom, I cannot see how we address this problem. And that is a very scary thought.BACK TO TOP