The F-word: Zuma vs Zapiro: what has it meant?

2012-11-03 10:05

One of the memorable phrases that have emerged from South African streets of late is “uzoba strong”.

Literally, it means “you will be strong”. Metaphorically, it urges all those who have something to complain about to keep their chins up. It can be applied equally to when an R18 million bid to buy a buffalo fails, or to when someone’s spouse elopes with the domestic help.

It appears President Jacob Zuma has decided to be “strong” with regards to his feelings about cartoonist Zapiro depicting him as ready to rape the justice system.

Zuma’s supporters urge us to now respect the president’s decision and move on. But this response is becoming tired. It typifies the tendency among the ruling elites to deepen their voices and vigorously wag their fingers when the occasion requires that they actually improve their argument.

President Zuma is the head of a secular state, not some spiritual community ordained with divine rights. His decisions are subject to public critique and even ridicule.

If the president’s acolytes are inconvenienced or irritated by the attention given to the head of state, they too must be strong. It is not the last time it will happen.

The official reason given for Zuma’s u-turn on the Zapiro case is that “the president would like to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have the effect of limiting the public exercise of free speech, with the unforeseen consequences this may have on our media, public commentators and citizens”, his spokesperson Mac Maharaj said in a statement.

But here is the clincher: “Essentially, what lies at the heart of the Sunday Times’ publication of the cartoon was a set of deeply ingrained prejudices regarding not only the president, but which extend to views about African males and sexual mores.

“While the courts exist in part to protect citizens against racial and cultural prejudice and bigotry, those scourges will not be eradicated from our body politic through litigation alone,” Maharaj concluded.

Taking the president at his word, he has lost an opportunity to help many South Africans who suffer from the bigotry he describes. Instead of putting the victims of racist stereotyping first, the president has decided to “be strong”.

In being statesman-like, the president has by implication left victims of racial and cultural prejudice to their own devices.

A president who spent 30 years either in prison or in exile, fighting for the right to human dignity for victims of institutionalised bigotry, should not just shrug off what he says is an act against not only him but all black men. Unless, of course, there are other reasons for his decision, as some have suggested, such as having a weak case to start with.

It is reasonable for the president to state that litigation alone will not reverse “deeply ingrained prejudices”. But he must then say what, if not litigation, might educate the likes of Zapiro about the hurtful and divisive effects of cultural prejudice and bigotry.

If the president truly believes Zapiro’s act was against not just him but against all victims of bigotry and prejudice at the hands of cartoonists, then walking away from the problem sends the fight against racism and bigotry backwards.

Zuma must say how he sees the actions and sentiments he accuses Zapiro of, actions squaring with the social-cohesion sermon he has been preaching of late.

Am I insisting the president should have taken the matter to court? No. It is his prerogative, but he is not only the president of media practitioners and social critics.

He is voted in by the vast majority of people for whom “deeply ingrained prejudices” are not an academic subject but an everyday reality. Is he suggesting they, too, turn the other cheek when confronted with the same?

Whatever he is saying, I hope it is not that the victims of centuries of dehumanisation must just “be strong”.

» Follow me on Twitter @fikelelo

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