It’s all a question of cultural misunderstanding, says academic The controversies that President Jacob Zuma’s public remarks sometimes trigger have been attributed to cultural misunderstandings between the president and those who interpret his messages. Mark Sanders, who lectures in comparative literature at New York University, has suggested that Zuma’s use of the isiZulu idiom in his public statements is sometimes misconstrued. Using examples from Zuma’s 2006 rape trial, during which he addressed the court in isiZulu, Sanders says that nuances in his speech are sometimes lost in translation. He says what Zuma said during the trial would not be difficult to understand if the English media had attempted to report his comments accurately. “Zuma was misrepresented. His testimony in the 2006 trial was quoted out of context and inaccurately paraphrased in the English-language press ... I don’t think that understanding what Zuma said in his testimony depends on sharing his cultural background. “Reported accurately, what he actually said is not difficult to understand,” says Sanders. Political analyst Protas Madlala believes Zuma gets short shrift from his critics mainly because of his educational background and the difficulty of translating cultural meaning. “You can’t translate culture. The moment you translate cultural meaning, it will have a different meaning altogether,” says Madlala. There are many examples of how Zuma’s isiZulu speeches have caused controversy. They include: » His remarks in Stanger in 2006 that “when I was growing up, an ungqingili(gay man) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out”; » His talk about jails being the “white man’s way” of resolving disputes in last year’s address to the National House of Traditional Leaders; » His comments about people who care for dogs more than other human beings in KwaZulu-Natal this year, and his statement that straightening a black person’s hair does not make that person white; and » His recent comment in a Giyani church that God has created a link between the government and the church, and that insulting people in authority creates a society that is angry with itself. Madlala says Zuma’s ability to connect with ordinary people using his language or cultural codes is his strength because they can relate to what he is communicating. But not everyone agrees. Cultural expert and activist Nombonisa Gasa says the problem with the president’s statements is not the language they are communicated in, but the meaning they convey. The issue with Zuma is that “his cultural references in terms of isiZulu are specific and frozen in time”, she says. “If you listen to the comment he made about dogs, listen to the clip and [refer] to the English translation – nothing was lost in translation. “In the culture that he harks back to, he suggests a world that is frozen – and that’s a problem. “I don’t think he is misunderstood. He is a good communicator. The problem is not communication, but the restricted way in which he conceives the world. It is shared by some and not shared by others,” Gasa says. She says there is something patronising about claims that Zuma is misunderstood because it suggests that some people cannot “transcend” village life. When contacted for comment this week, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj declined to respond. But he did say that he was not worried about what commentators think of Zuma. » Talk to us: Do you believe that President Jacob Zuma is misunderstood? The misunderstood Mr Zuma?