Wednesday, May 13, 2009

JZ cometh – am I bothered?

I have a confession that is unpopular in both South Africa and globally, and will probably result in my being ripped to shreds from all side. But here goes – I confess that I cannot make up my mind about how I feel about Jacob Zuma and I am not sure if it matters.

Apparently, JZ is either the anti-Christ or the saviour South Africa has been waiting for – the the man who will lead us into a new dispensation of milk, honey and BMWs for the poor this Christmas, or into a barren wilderness of economic decline and corrupt, banana republic politics where we will all be taking regular showers (if there was enough water) to protect ourselves from infectious diseases.

What is it about him that provokes people so much?

Is it simply that he does not fit the mould of the Mbeki, Clinton, Blair era of politicians – the great reformers who spent their time on a slippery slope to the right while pretending to care deeply about the welfare of the poor as the gap between the haves and have-nots was increasing? Or is it because JZ is a so-called traditionalist, and many whites in South Africa and in the Western world do not know what that means and it evokes racist stereotypes in them? Or that his supporters are still so unfamiliar with the liberal democracy they voted for in 1994 that they think, rather naively, that JZ is actually the vanguard of a new revolution and, therefore, worth backing, no matter what?

I am not sure. But I do know we should all be asking ourselves why we feel so strongly about him. This might tell us more about ourselves than him.

What I like about him is that he provokes a reaction in people, whether by design or accident. Anyone who can help stimulate debate and breathe life into politics, as the recent South African election proved is okay by my book.

Of course, I need to qualify this. Robert Mugabe provokes debate, as did Idi Amin and Pol Pot before him, and I not particularly fond of any of these gentlemen. But JZ is more of an enigma. There is something about him that is potentially hopeful and destructive at the same time. I am also a sucker for his rendition of his theme tune, Umshini Wami (Bring me my machine gun). It reminds me of my grandfather asking me to fetch his slippers.

Many whites are now quaking in their boots, and probably some of the new black middle class are wondering about their investments too. But what did South Africans expect? Given the economic disparities in South Africa, how could anyone but a populist have risen to power at some point and promise radical change? It would have been nice if the person chosen to do this was as unsoiled as Barack Obama, but life is mostly not like that.

So this is how I read it: Zuma is in a position where complacency is not an option. Given the corruption case, he has to be squeaky clean. The biggest threat to everyone is not what he will do, but rather that he does not do enough. He has to deliver for the entire country. Whether we approve of him or not, or his choice of song when it comes to public crooning, his mission to change the lot of the poor is in everyone’s long-term interest.

So maybe it is time we all stopped worrying about him as a person and focused on the big looming questions. How is South Africa going to become a fairer place? How do we ensure that democracy remains robust and human rights are protected for all? JZ will be part of this for a while, but, in a genuine democracy, politicians are temporary, whereas social problems can endure, and that is worth worrying about.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 8 May 2009.