In search of the elusive Mr Zuma

2008-12-27 00:00

It is symptomatic of a fraught year building to a crucial election, that there has been a flurry of writers trying to get to grips with the major political players. In South Africa, 2008 has been the year of the political biography and the stakes are high; in public life, public image is everything.

The most recent is Jeremy Gordin’s biography of African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, produced in such a rush for Christmas that large chunks of text lifted from Paul Holden’s book on the arms deal went unacknowledged. It made for an inauspicious launch amid public apologies, restitution to the wronged author and Gordin defending himself against claims that he is a “Zuma apologist” on the evidence of his journalism.

There has also been Anthony Butler on Cyril Ramaphosa, Padraig O’Malley on Mac Maharaj and Pippa Green on Trevor Manuel. And then there was the irrepressible Tony Leon on Tony Leon.

But nothing has come close to Mark Gevisser’s magisterial tome on former president Thabo Mbeki, eight years in the making and published late last year. Sod’s law, it just missed the defining moment of the Mbeki presidency, his humiliation at the Polokwane party conference, which presaged his “recall” from office this year.

Despite Gevisser’s Mbeki being overtaken by events, the two biographies on Mbeki and Zuma make an interesting juxtaposition. After all, Mbeki and Zuma are two men, once as close as brothers during the struggle, whose subsequent personal antipathies have split the ANC and brought South Africa to the brink of constitutional crisis.

Gordin is unfairly criticised for bias. While he is undoubtedly sympathetic to Zuma and his cause, he is meticulously even-handed in his detailed factual account of Zuma’s many travails.

Unfortunately, Gordin is also disappointingly uncritical and unable, or unwilling, to draw any conclusions from the self-inflicted tribulations of the world’s most legally afflicted presidential hopeful.

What is lacking is that which South Africa is crying out for: some kind of insight into Zuma’s character beyond the partisan and simplistic. Gordin, however, serves up mostly a pastiche of exculpation, all drawn from Zuma’s inner circle, Gordin’s main source.

The Zuma acolytes — about two-thirds of the membership of the African National Congress, if the Polokwane vote is the measure — will admit no impediment to their view that he is “100% Zulu boy” and can do no wrong. And even if he does do wrong, that’s okay, and they would rather destroy the judiciary and dismantle the Constitution than see him punished.

One suspects that much of the rest of South Africa would — gauged by Polokwane, approximately half the electorate and not only whites, as Gordin claims — tend towards Mbeki’s opinion of Zuma. As rendered by Gevisser, Mbeki supposedly believes that Zuma is incompetent and possesses “a dangerous combination of unhealthy ambition and poor judgment”.

By the Mbeki camp’s thinking, Zuma’s ascension to the presidency would be a dream shattered, as the brightest hope for the continent slides into becoming just another “post-colonial kleptocracy”.

Gordin ducks and dives to avoid delivering an unambiguous opinion on Zuma’s suitability for office, but at the end, forced to reach some kind of conclusion, argues somewhat speciously that the discomfort engendered by Zuma goes beyond an antipathy to corruption, populism, or chauvinism. Zuma, writes Gordin, “serves to rub people’s noses in the reality of South Africa … continually showing us our own ugly visages.”

Naysayers are shaken by the realisation that for many voters, Zuma is the man whom they trust. “It does not matter if he got a bit of money here or there, or if he has fathered children here, there and everywhere.”

Gordin may well be right — next year’s general election will be the proofing of his thesis.

• Jeremy Gordin’s Zuma: A Biography, is published by Jonathan Ball, as was Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred.

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