The polygamist meets the stoical monogamist

2010-03-06 00:00

SUBJECTS of the Great White Queen are outraged that she had to billet at her home and then host at a state banquet, an ill-educated African tribesman with unusual sexual habits. As the Daily Mail put it, “Jacob Zuma is a sex-obsessed bigot with four wives and 35 children. Why is Britain fawning over this vile buffoon?”

Unfortunately for Her Majesty, the dancing polygamist — who at his rural retreat prefers leopard skin and white takkies to the sober suits of his philosophising predecessor — is improbably the leader of the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa. And South Africa is also a leading light in the queen’s beloved Commonwealth.

The tabloid spleen over whether President Jacob Zuma is a sex fiend or merely a buffoon is diverting, but essentially irrelevant. After a lifetime at it, Lizzie is pragmatic about the demands that the nation’s commerce and geopolitics impose on her social diary.

The queen hosts, at most, two state visits a year. But, over 58 years, this adds up to lavishing hospitality on a number of unsavoury thugs whom the British government of the day was romancing. These included Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; Mobutu Sese Seko, plunderer of Zaïre; Robert Mugabe, plunderer of Zimbabwe; and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose harem and offspring rival that of Zuma.

There was also Hirohito, unrepentant emperor of wartime Japan, whose soldiers savagely abused British prisoners of war. Hirohito’s 1971 visit had the crowds turning their backs on his horse-drawn carriage ride to Buckingham Palace and inspired Private Eye’s memorable cover, “There’s a nasty Nip in the air”.

In any case, the queen cannot afford to be too precious about sexual idiosyncrasies. After all, her heir apparent once expressed a heart-felt desire to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon.

Fortunately, the influential Financial Times has been more positive. Alec Russell, FT news editor and author of After Mandela — the Battle for the Soul of South Africa, dismissed depictions of the visit as comic opera.

Russell argues that it is easy to underestimate Zuma, “to be diverted by the cartoonish caricature”. But it’s a measure of Zuma’s canniness that he returns on a visit invested with “all the pomp that Britain can muster”, while just over two years ago during the leadership battle, Zuma was “all but barred, even from the SA High Commission”.

As usual, queenie’s instincts are good. Historical, trade and tourism ties between the two countries are strong but the Brits are aware that Zuma’s government is increasingly looking East for the future. Or, as Russell delicately puts it, “there are suitors from elsewhere with less intrusive demands”, who see South Africa not as the failed Rainbow Nation but “an emerging market with countless opportunities, and an obvious gateway to Africa”.

What everyone is waiting for from Zuma is leadership. It has been absent at home and now he has fluffed the chance to exhibit it abroad.

It is difficult to imagine a less suitable issue for Zuma to highlight in Britain than the lifting of “smart sanctions” against Zimbabwe.

Firstly, it is not going to happen. The United States has just announced their retention for at least another year. Secondly, to lift sanctions will not “facilitate progress” as Zuma claims, but will weaken further the precarious position of the opposition in Zimbabwe’s coalition government.

Zuma used to deride former president Thabo Mbeki’s appeasement of Mugabe, promising a harder, unilateral line. That has not happened. Not because circumstances have improved in Zimbabwe, but because South Africa’s president is incapable of making difficult, controversial decisions.

Meanwhile, one must hope that the stoically monogamous GWQ’s roving-eye consort didn’t pick up any kinky polygamous ideas from JZ.

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