SA’s chortling president

2015-03-17 13:34

The president’s hilarity in Parliament has got the country wondering what he finds so funny. Mondli Makhanya looks at the presidential mirth and what it means for us

There was a moment on Wednesday that marked yet another low in the life of South Africa under Jacob Zuma. Let us call it the finger moment.

President Zuma had admonished Economic Freedom Fighters MP Natasha Louw for asking that ever-recurrent #paybackthemoney question.

Admonishing her, the president waved his finger à la PW Botha.

When Louw upbraided him – furiously – for wagging his finger, Speaker Baleka Mbete asked President Zuma to withdraw the offending digit.

“I withdraw my finger,” Zuma said, and burst into laughter. Then he laughed. And he laughed. He turned his back on the House and hid his finger inside his jacket. And he laughed, uncontrollably.

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The hysterics lasted about 10 seconds, followed by a self-satisfied smirk on his face. His adoring fans on the ANC benches chuckled along, like those minions in the Mafia movies who guffaw at the boss’ every joke.

And there was another moment – when United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa suggested the president take a sabbatical while the million scandals surrounding him get sorted out.

Holomisa pointed out how unseemly it was that people were always talking about Zuma’s shenanigans.

Our president, once again, saw an opportunity to play the clown.

“They talked about me before I was a president; they are talking about me when I am a president. And I think because I am a politician and a leader, people tend to try to find something to say about Zuma.

“My surname is very nice and simple: Zuma. So they like pronouncing it all the time. What’s the problem? You can’t take leave because people are saying there is a Zuma in South Africa.”

And he laughed again. The iziwengu – the sycophants – laughed along, as required by protocol.

This scene was to play itself out many times during Wednesday’s session, a session which saw Zuma alternate between being the aggrieved victim and the class clown.

When he slipped into the persecuted but defiant injured party, the iziwengu clapped in solidarity.

When he was in class-clown mode, they cheered him on and joined in his mirth on cue.

Zuma’s giggling has dominated national conversation, featuring as prominently as the answers he gave on the Nkandla development.

Some media outlets have even sought expert opinion on why the president laughs so much.

Psychologists, body language experts and political analysts were consulted as the nation sought to get to grips with this phenomenon of a president who would even laugh at the sight of a falling autumn leaf.

Are his laughs arrogance, spite, nervousness or the masking of fear, was the question on many lips.

But for the most part, the reaction of South Africans to the president’s laughing fits has ranged from amusement to irritation.

Amusement because Zuma looks really foolish when he breaks into those giggling fits.

And irritation because he does not seem to take his job seriously and does not take the institutions of governance seriously.

In themselves, laughter and giggling are not crimes. Forbid the day we take ourselves so seriously as to demand stern faces from our politicians.

And Zuma himself is a gregarious individual whose rise to power was due as much to his political dexterity as it was to his incredible charm.

The quibble with Zuma’s laughter is that it comes at the most inappropriate times, much like releasing foul air inside an elevator. He has had this condition for most of his time in public life, but it seems to have become worse in his second presidential term.

On that shameful day of February 12, when armed goons stormed into the House and beat up members of Parliament, Zuma’s reaction was to laugh.

After events that will forever be a stain on South Africa’s history, the president chose not to lead. His first act when he got to the podium was to giggle. To him this had been an evening of entertainment. At different intervals during his address to a shocked and sombre nation, he found reason to chortle.

It was as if he were the only person in the country who didn’t grasp the gravity of what had happened.

Days later, during the replies to his speech, when opposition MPs were pointing to serious flaws in his leadership of our crisis-ridden republic, Zuma resorted to laughter. If he was not chuckling, he was wearing his favoured Cheshire grin.

Nothing seems to perturb the president – not the energy crisis, not the wars in the criminal justice system, not a restless public and certainly not the ailing economy.

He has mastered the art of governance by laughter. In the process he has reduced his office, Parliament and the notion of accountability to a joke.

Unlike elevator passengers who can exit on the next floor, the South African citizenry is stuck with the chortling president for another four years.

They have to put up with clowning, substituting for accountability, till 2019.

Until then, they have to tolerate the chuckling in the face of crisis. They have to accept that no matter the gravity of the nation’s problems, their president will laugh them away. And the iziwengu will laugh with him.

After all, Mbete did tell us last week that “President Zuma is not our equal here”.

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