Why Zuma is so loved

2007-12-07 00:00

Many analysts have wondered why otherwise right-thinking people prefer the apparently wayward African National Congress deputy president Jacob Zuma to President Thabo Mbeki. These opinion makers have resorted to name calling by suggesting that people who are supporting Zuma are somehow fools.

The nomination of Zuma for president of the ANC, including by the ANC Women’s League, has baffled many people of the privileged establishment. However, it should not have baffled anyone following trends, especially those given by reputable research companies and institutions.

Polls have consistently put Zuma ahead as the person favoured by the general public to be president of the country. However, the chattering classes deliberately ignored this tangible evidence.

Soon after his rape trial acquittal last year a hostile Sunday Times commissioned one of the most reputable research companies to investigate who was most favoured by South Africans to succeed Mbeki. The results were a resounding affirmation of Zuma, to the disgust of the publication. Zuma was favoured by 27% of women and by 60% of men in Soweto. The second figure was Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka with 13% and other candidates, including Cyril Ramaphosa, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, were a distant seven percent or so apart.

A year later research by TNS Research revealed similar polling on Zuma. And the University of Johannesburg conducted research in Soweto where 52% of the people indicated that they wanted Zuma as the president. This is a remarkable consistency indicating that even if the president was elected by a direct vote, Zuma would trounce any other candidate.

In many ways, the ANC presidential election has become similar to the United States general elections with world citizens harbouring a partisan desire for a certain outcome even though they are not U.S. citizens. Everyone wants to discuss ANC policy and have a say in the presidential outcome, even though they are not ANC members.

But why is Zuma so loved despite a vicious media campaign stretching as far back as November 2002 conducted by journalists, analysts and columnists who twisted news reports in order to paint him blacker than he is?

Let me turn to the U.S. presidential hopefuls who wished to succeed then President Bill Clinton — Al Gore, who was favoured by the media, and the current President George W. Bush, who received a hostile press.

In many ways, Zuma’s life reminds one of Clinton’s and Jacques Chirac’s troubled presidencies. Let me quote at length writer Adam Bellow, writing in his hypocrisy-debunking book In Praise of Nepotism: a natural history, on why Americans preferred Bush to Gore.

“In contrast to Gore’s studied impression of a dutiful heir [good son] laying sacrifices on the ancestral hearth, Bush played the role of the prodigal [son]. An indifferent student, problem drinker, womaniser and possible drug user.

“Many were offended by the idea that the presidency could be claimed as a birthright, as though it were family property. But others saw in Bush the authenticity Gore lacked, suggesting that the rebellious youth who eventually accepts mature responsibilities is better liked and trusted than the dutiful son who suppresses his true inclinations to please a demanding father.”

Of course, the similarities may not be precisely apposite. However, we are far less perturbed by Zuma’s financial tribulations and sexual predilections. After all, the largest section of this society goes through such experiences. The prudish and the proper are but just a mask, the exaggerated behaviour of the puritan.

But authenticity is the key word that explains why many people so love Zuma. He is as authentic as the soil and, refreshingly, has no hypocritical fastidiousness.

Zuma is society writ large in all its nakedness and pathos. With Zuma one sees and touches a human being of flesh and blood. With the other contenders, one feels as though one is watching an act of studied pretentiousness and hypocrisy — ditto, for his detractors. The people are at one with Zuma and they know it. He shares their problems, he lives their lives. Moreover, he has an arresting quality of humility.

• Mduduzi Dlamini is a freelance journalist.

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