JZ uncovered

2008-11-03 00:00

“HE’S a bit trepidatious about it,” says veteran journalist Jeremy Gordin, speaking of Jacob Zuma’s reaction to the news that Gordin has been writing an unauthorised biography about the African National Congress president. “He’s not very trusting of journalists.” Simply titled Zuma, the book will be published in December and is already on the Exclusive Books List of 53 top books for the end of the year — a strong hint that the controversial politician is likely to find his way into any number of South African Christmas stockings this year.

Gordin is an associate editor of the Sunday Independent and was the winner of the 2008 South African Journalist of the Year Award. He and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel were among the speakers at last week’s launch of the Exclusive Books List in Johannesburg. Manuel is also the subject of a biography, this time authorised and by Pippa Green. Books on current affairs and political figures are a big draw — the political situation is hot news right now.

Despite the book being unauthorised, over the two years that Gordin has worked on it, Zuma and his supporters have co-operated with him. “I know him from covering his trials,” says Gordin. “But I think he was a bit taken aback when I told him I wanted to do it.”

There were a few no-go areas. Gordin says he asked Zuma about his wives: “He won’t talk about his love life — says he’ll do that when he does his own book. He keeps on threatening to tell the real story himself.” Although it seems unlikely that he will have the time in the foreseeable future.

Gordin calls the book “a straightforward political biography”, telling the remarkable story of the rise and fall, and rise again of his subject. “JZ came out of utter rural poverty, bereft of any support. His father died when he was three and his mother worked as a domestic in Durban. He didn’t go to school — he was looking after his grandfather’s cattle.” To an extent, Zuma organised studies for himself, but it was only after he was sent to Robben Island — what Gordin describes as a fantastic finishing school — that he got any formal education.

According to Gordin, Zuma rose through the ANC on Thabo Mbeki’s coat-tails. One thing he says he learnt while researching and writing is how close the relationship between the two men was. “They were joined at the hip,” he says. “Everywhere Mbeki went, Zuma was his point man. Now it’s a ‘broedertwis’, two brothers falling out.”

The current situation — the recall of Mbeki and the fallout from Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgment in the Pietermaritzburg High Court dealing with the fairness or otherwise of the NPA’s decision to charge Zuma — has obviously come at a good time for Gordin’s book. It is the point at which he ends it, although Zuma’s story looks set to run for some time yet.

It is also full of strange echoes. Gordin talks about how, in 2005, Mbeki fired Zuma after the Shaik case “over a court case in which a little grey-haired judge presides”. Then, in September this year, Zuma’s ANC fired Mbeki after another court case in which a little grey-haired judge presided. “It’s like riffs in music. The same tune but new embroidery on it.

“And if you think that the ANC in exile was a bunch of loving comrades, think again,” says Gordin. “It was all about cliques and it was amazing how quick everyone was to put a knife into another person’s back. There’s a conspiracy of silence. It’s a family and you don’t say things about family members to outsiders. But the back-stabbing has always been there.

“It’s a remarkable story,” says Gordin. “But there are some unpleasant incidents.” He is referring mainly to Zuma’s role at the ANC’s Quattro camp in Angola, and to the 2006 rape trial which, although Zuma was acquitted, more than the Schabir Shaik trial marked the beginning of what has been bad press for the ANC leader.

Gordin is fascinated by how much emotion Zuma arouses. People love to hate him. “It has always interested me how much people hate him. It’s white people in whom I meet the most intractable criticism.

“Some people take serious offence to his polygamy. They feel you can’t have a president who is a polygamist. Why not?” He goes on to refer to an interview with Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer that appeared recently in which she said that Zuma’s ranting reminds her of the Nazi Party at the time of the Beerhall putsch [Hitler’s attempted coup against the German government in 1923]. “But Zuma doesn’t rant,” says Gordin. “He talks slowly and thoughtfully.”

I ask Gordin if he likes Zuma? “Yes,” he says. “I do.” He says that most people who meet the ANC president are immediately attracted to him. He is a likeable man. The next thing I ask is, in his opinion, would Zuma make a good president?

Gordin thinks for a moment before he answers. “I don’t think he would be a bad president,” he says. “And I think he would be a much more consensual president than Thabo Mbeki. I don’t think Mbeki was necessarily a bad president, but he was a flawed one.” Has Zuma admitted to Gordin that he has been tainted by the Shaik connection? Gordin says that, while Zuma might not put it in those terms, he will acknowledge that it hasn’t been a great thing for him.

Zuma will not see Gordin’s book before it appears on the shelves. In fact, Gordin says, Zuma is not a great reader. “That’s not how he operates,” he says. “It’s one of the hurdles you have to get over about him. He comes from a verbal culture, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s uninformed. He has a different way of dealing with the world.”

While writing Zuma, Gordin has had his journalist’s antennae on high alert to look out for signs that he has been manipulated. After all, Zuma has a well-oiled spin machine. “There have been accusations that I am up Zuma’s posterior,” he says. “But I’m not and anyway, there are too many people in front of me.”

• Zuma by Jeremy Gordin is published by Jonathan Ball and will be available in book shops early in December.

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