The British public should not take the blathering of Jacob Zuma too much to heart. Besides being composed chiefly of tired cliches everyone has heard before (including in ‘Yes, Minsiter’ scripts), his words are utterly meaningless in the 21st Century. They should look no further than the campaign he ran against former president Thabo Mbeki to discover just how much of this insubstantial man’s success rests on bluster, tantrums and rabble-rousing cries of “bring me my machine gun“. This last habit might be comical were it not that Zuma probably has one.
Before becoming president, Zuma’s greatest claim to fame was his Teflon-like ability to evade scandal. Rape allegations, accusations that he was tied to mobsters, and – most infamously – his assertion that, despite having a one-night-stand with an HIV-positive woman, he regarded having a hot shower after unprotected sex as sufficient to stop any HIV transmission.
When the political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper Mail & Guardian, Zapiro, made fun of this, Zuma attempted to sue the cartoonist, but more ominously had the ANC issue a statement describing the paper’s decision to publish the cartoon as “an abuse of press freedom”. This is not a good omen.
Ironically, his cavalier attitude to the nation’s sexual health further revealed itself when – after becoming president – he fired his health minister Barbara Hogan. Hogan had replaced Manto Tshabalala-Msimang or “Dr Beetroot” as she was derisively known. Tshabalala-Msimang was an AIDS-denier who believed beetroot juice cured HIV and Hogan was instrumental in reversing the years of damage she’d caused to fight against the spread of the disease. Widely praised by HIV campaigners, Hogan was restoring credibility to the health services when she had the temerity to criticise Zuma’s decision to ban the Dalai Lama from South Africa. Zuma’s ego came before the nation’s health and Hogan was out.
Zuma’s next step was equally perplexing. He dispatched the ultra-homophobic journalist Jon Qwelane to Uganda as the South African ambassador. Uganda is currently considering introducing the death penalty for homosexuality, so I suppose Qwelane – who recently expressed a wish to scrap South Africa’s liberal constitution – was a good fit.
Zuma’s ultimate bluster is to condemn those who criticise the fact that he can’t seem to control his sexual urges as “colonialists” who insult his “culture”. Yes, arguably polygamy is part of Zulu culture,
but having three current wives doesn’t satisfy the president. His list of extra-multi-marital affairs are notorious and he is believed to have as many as 35 children, many out of wedlock and many unacknowledged by their father.
In contrast, his political rival, Mangosuthu Buthelezi – a member of the Zulu royal family, and thus someone who knows a thing or two about Zulu culture – has been monogamously married to his wife for over fifty years. Buthelezi has maintained a dignified distance from the issue, concerned that it detracts from more important national debates.
Nevertheless, in a country where the HIV/AIDS rate is, conservatively, around 20% and is spread primarily through heterosexual sex, it is not the country’s president who is setting the best example.
The best thing to do when President Zuma lectures you is laugh.