Comrade awaits drinkies with Zuma

2010-02-20 00:00

HOW extraordinary that a politician indifferent to being the laughing stock of the world should take umbrage because a jogging student made a rude sign at his motorcade. It suggests that President Jacob Zuma’s affability is a mask, the rhino hide a paper-thin illusion.

A presidential Goon Squad arrested irreverent Cape Town undergraduate Chumani Maxwele at gunpoint recently. Embarrassingly, he proved to be not a dangerous anarchist concealing homicidal intentions behind his extended middle finger, but a card-carrying African National Congress activist.

Maxwele, somewhat implausibly, claims that he was not making rude signs but waving away the noisy, fume-belching blue-light brigade because they were spoiling his jogging pleasure. Even more implausibly, Zuma’s head thumpers explained that they had to draw weapons on Maxwele, rough him up and bundle him into the back seat with a bag over his head, because he “resisted arrest”.

He was then whisked first to Zuma’s official home and then a police station, where he was held for some 24 hours and allegedly verbally abused and interrogated by intelligence operatives, who also searched his home. Zuma’s office refused afterwards to comment on a “security issue”. Given that their boss has a propensity for gaffes and bad publicity, one would have hoped for something a little cleverer. But while it is true that the Z-squad’s reaction was completely disproportionate to what Maxwele supposedly had done, in a strange way he should count himself fortunate. The more usual fate of those allegedly resisting arrest is to be shot dead.

Instead, Maxwele escaped with a charge of crimen injuria, but the jeering jogger will in fact not be prosecuted. Disappointingly for Zuma, South Africa does not yet have laws that make a bad attitude to authority a flogging offence.

President Robert Mugabe would cheer the zeal of Zuma’s protectors, while chuckling at their lack of legislative foresight. The Mugger of the Nation has long since made it a serious offence in Zimbabwe for anyone to demean his exalted status with zap signs, back-of-the-hand sniggers, lewd sucking noises, eye rolling, nose picking, ear-hole excavation or scrotum scratching. Arse-licking by his subjects remains tolerated, even encouraged.

Meanwhile, the shallow soil of South African democracy is demonstrated by the risible statements emanating from the police.

The Thug Squad’s actions were entirely justified, according to SS spokesperson, Hauptbefehlsleiter Zweli Mnisi, because Maxwele’s gesture was “synonymous with swearing and disrespect”.

Rude gestures will not be tolerated, ranted Obergruppenführer Mnisi, “especially as such conduct may lead to promoting hate conduct … and it needs to be understood that police have a duty to safeguard all citizens, and anyone who poses danger (sic) or becomes unruly will face the full might of the law”.

Sturmtruppenoberst Mnisi could not actually identify which specific law was contravened when one thumbed one’s nose at an anonymous, tinted-window motorcade, except to say that “morally, you just can’t swear at people”. Well, umm, actually you can, dimwit.

The Constitution protects free speech, including by those who are rude and disrespectful.

In any case, as constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos points out, “If showing a middle finger was a criminal offence, half of South Africa would find themselves in prison.”

Zuma is generally astute and much of his charm lies in the fact that he is accessible, genial and puts on none of the pompous airs of his predecessor, former president Thabo Mbeki. The best way to recover from this fiasco would be to invite the now rather disillusioned young comrade to Tuynhuys for a beer, while simultaneously kicking some blue-serge backsides and issuing an unambiguous command to the politzei to stop the blue-light bullying.

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