Prince Mashele

Cry the naked nation

2010-02-15 12:35

Under normal circumstances, writers would refuse to be part of such a din as the one triggered by the shocking revelation of President Jacob Zuma's amazing sexual productivity. However, the dire implications of the president's unpresidential conduct are enough to sharpen public thirst for contributions by those who would otherwise let the cacophony continue.

In order for us fully to penetrate the meaning of Zuma's embarrassing bedroom politics, we first need to grasp the meaning of the person who occupies the office of the president.

Unlike in a dictatorship - where the head of state gains power by force - leaders are voted into office by popular consent in a democracy. The philosophical rationale for a popular vote is that the one who leads ought to be the embodiment of the collective will of the people he leads.

Rational as they are, human beings are expected correctly to exercise sound judgment before they install their leaders into office. As human beings, we are not viewed in the same light as a herd of animals that are instructed by natural instincts to follow a leader that might mislead a whole flock into grave danger. Unlike animals, we think, and use our brains to take decisions.

But why must we rehash such banal facts about human beings, and how could a recollection of such obvious facts assist us in our quest fully to understand the intersection between a leader's wild, sexual pleasures and our collective dignity as a nation?

Being the embodiment of our collective will, president Zuma, through his private and public life, reflects us. He is the man we chose as the best among us. When outsiders seek to evaluate our collective wisdom as a people, they look at Zuma as an outward expression of such wisdom. When they wish to gauge the maturity of our value system, foreigners see Zuma as our shining example.

The father of our nation

Thus, the words that flow from Mr Zuma's lips are correctly construed by listeners as a showcase of the fineness of the collective mind of our nation. His deeds, too, are viewed as a mirror image of all South Africans as a people.  When the President does a sterling job, we see our collective excellence in him; and when he behaves embarrassingly, we are right to feel ashamed. He is us in him.

It is indeed true that a president occupies a chair higher than those occupied by us, we ordinary plebeians. We give him such a high chair as a bestowal of our highest honour - to thank him for being the best among us, and for exemplifying the best of us. Therefore, the high chair comes with higher expectations; that the one who occupies it must conduct himself in a manner that is consistent with the loftiness of his elevation.

The fact that president Zuma occupies our high chair as a nation means that all of us are below him, and that he is above us. That very fact implies that he is the best among us, and that the youth should yearn to be like him. Indeed, children are expected ordinarily to draw inspiration from their parents. Analogously, Zuma is the father of our nation, and we are his children. He is the best among us, and we should yearn to be like him.

The follies of children are expected generally to be worse than those of their parents. The logic says: Zuma is better, and we are worse! If we reject this logic, we would be bound to accept that we have an abnormal situation. If we accept that we have an abnormal leader, we would ipso facto be implying that we ourselves are abnormal - remember that we installed Mr Zuma into office!

Now that we have a fuller appreciation of the meaning of the person who occupies the office of the president, we are better placed to appreciate how the nakedness of a president becomes the nakedness of a whole nation.

President Zuma's latest sexual scandal is one of those that have forced the whole world to look at him as a man with untamed sexual desires. Instead of thinking of him as a leader, many now view him as a naked president. As he stood in parliament last Thursday to deliver his second State of the Nation Address, billions of outsiders who watched TV wondered: what is wrong with this old man’s libido?

When observers think of Zuma as a naked president, our nation is also reflected in his nakedness. He is us in him. When asked to explain the behaviour of the president, our diplomats abroad say: what His Excellency, our Honourable President has done is not abnormal in South Africa.

Nakedness of our nation

Given that a president is expected to be better, and that we plebeians are expected to be worse, those who listen to the explanation of our ambassadors conclude logically that South Africans are worse than their leader. In the nakedness of our president, foreigners see our collective nakedness, too.

From the baseness of Mr Zuma, foreigners deduct that fathers in South Africa see nothing wrong in having sex with daughters of their friends. While these foreigners surely understand that Sonono and our president are two consenting adults, it must still be difficult for observers to comprehend a culture that allows an old man to sleep with a friend's daughter. These are some of the questions a South African diplomat - representing our country abroad - has to answer today.

What haunts the soul is that this is not the first time Mr Zuma has embarrassed us all. As we grudgingly try and ignore the nakedness of our nation, not a single South African citizen can vow that president Zuma will not hit us with another, more shocking scandal. Could it be that what he has done, less than a year in the office, is a harbinger of worse things to come?

However you look at it, these are not normal circumstances in which writers should refuse to be part of a din. In times like this, those with sharp pencils cannot afford to dismiss the public outcry as mere cacophony. The implications for our naked nation are dire. The fabric of our society is being torn apart by those who are supposed to protect it. The question is: are we as powerless as we appear to be?

- Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (www.politicsresearch.co.za), and a member of the Midrand Group

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