Of course I had heard all the stories, and yet, somehow my disbelief needed to be confronted by reality. Sometimes, such things require some visual confirmation, after all, the mind can play tricks upon itself. And so it was that I recently found myself seated in a luxury auditorium in Berlin, listening to none other than his Excellency the President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.
My expectations were quickly met, my imagination of the moment confirmed, and my fantasy exceeded as he began his show. His reflective dome was indeed a shiny brown, and his tinted glasses did indeed strike a Bono chord, and his oratory command did indeed match that of a 5 year old. No doubt you have already gathered the tone and position of the author’s views. But it is not enough for me to simply denounce Zuma’s obvious shortcomings and the sad comedy of his Presidency, rather I would like position the circumstances that led us to this dire predicament.
Zuma’s trajectory and assent to the Presidency in 2009 was filled with stunning controversy. None more glaring than when he was charged with rape. In the subsequent trial, Zuma, who at the time headed the National AIDS Council, admitted that he had not used a condom when having sex with the woman, despite knowing that she was HIV-positive. He stated in court that he had taken a shower afterwards to "cut the risk of contracting HIV". This offence alone should have been a clear indication that he was unfit for office. Although he was found innocent, the trial and sad irony of the revelations it brought into the public provided the strongest blueprint of what was to come.
As he plodded through his speech I found myself mesmerised by the pompous arrogance of the man. The sense of his words evaporated almost as soon as they left his mouth, that was the extent of their dryness, all that was left behind was a dyslexic echo that hung in the air.
The truth about Zuma, is that he regrettably mirrors much of the views held by large sections of the South African population. This, along with the ANC’s historically anchored political and social dominance, has seen him confound rationality by remaining in power for almost 7 years. The painfully slow decantation of transformation has now been entrusted to a detestable man who sits upon the throne of a party who dispatches hope in canisters of historical allegiance, all the while unemployment, corruption and social unease remains virulent. Without a doubt, Zuma is the manifestation and fermentation of history and coincidence.
Post apartheid South Africa is the product of a dream that born from the ashes of the past. As the country transitioned from an oppressive regime to a multi-racial and democratic nation, it planted optimistic seeds, and was quickly dumbed the Rainbow Nation. The architects of the transition would promise an egalitarian society in which the divisions and crippling politics of the past would no longer determine the country’s path. However, 22 years removed from that moment of overwhelming enthusiasm and the country remains blighted by deeps social and economic realities. 3 ANC presidents later, and what has become clear is that the work of transformation is far from finished.
For the vast majority, there is a sense that they were duped by the promise of the future - the staple rhetoric of any revolutionary leader - a future which has proven itself to be not as blissful as was once advertised. This is not to put all this at Zuma’s feet, but rather to illustrate the background to his rise.
The populist Zuma arrived in our weakest moment, that moment in which when we no longer believed in ourselves, in that moment when the reality of our condition and the failure of hope collided. Our despair now critical, susceptible to even the littlest con, we entrusted our country to a man whose morality we knew to be dubious at best, and utterly corrupted at worst.
Zuma is the opiate that we turned to because we had nothing better. But I do not blame my people, for the time and moment were ripe - Zuma being the product of both. And so we did, and we continue to gorge upon his banal politics, so much so that we have grown punch-drunk upon his words and unending failures.
His moment seems without end, and even if we despatched him from office, his ilk and moreover our weakness are now institutional and firmly plated in our consciousness. The truth is that our hope was turned and employed against us by none other than ourselves, Zuma being the embodiment of despair.
And so it was that as I sat there, listing to his Excellence, I attempted my heartiest endeavour to surmount my prejudice, and happily failed.