Zuma a born fighter

2012-11-17 18:22

This extract from Doug Foster’s mini book gives insight into a younger Jacob Zuma

Back at Nkandla a month later, I spent much of the afternoon with Jacob Zuma’s brothers down by the kraal.

Joseph had been busy supervising preparations for the feast. He was older by a few months, the child of the woman Zuma had called his “Elder Mother”.

 But, from his appearance, you might have guessed that Joseph was at least a decade senior.

He towered over the other men but walked unsteadily in an old man’s stoop.

His hair was shot through with grey and his eyes were cloudy, crowded with cataracts.

Joseph attributed his shaky health to years of manual labour at the Dunlop chemical plant in Durban.

Respirators hadn’t been provided in the years he worked there, he explained. He remembered that the dust often had been so thick inside the factory you could barely see.

“When the bosses came in, they would come in white and go out looking black”, he laughed.

When Jacob returned in 1990, he asked Joseph to come home and look after things.

Joseph thought this invitation had probably saved his life as most of his friends who remained working at the chemical plant were dead.

“It was very bad”, he said, “but my brother, he is very clever.”

He spoke of his slightly younger sibling with unveiled awe. They had been raised in the same place, with the same opportunities, and yet somehow Jacob had risen to unimaginable heights.

Joseph said that he had only come to fully realise how important his brother was when they had visited the royal residence of the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini a year earlier.

He had heard with his own ears the king promise that he would help swing the support of Zulu-speaking people toward the ANC if Zuma was chosen to lead the party.

The king and the commoner had spoken together like equals. That was what astonished Joseph.

When the younger brother, Mike, joined us, they took turns trying to answer a question I kept posing: why had this one sibling, among 12 children raised by two mothers, turned out so differently from all the rest?

They shrugged their shoulders, looking puzzled.

His brothers felt their sibling had distinguished himself from the start.

They remembered that he had organised the other children to ask a neighbour who was literate to teach them how to write their own names.

“He was a leader right away,” Mike murmured, “he started to lead us and tell us that we must go to school.”

There was something else he dredged up from his memory that drew my interest: it was the image of his brother working hard to master traditional Zulu stick fighting, called ukuxoshisa.

Stick fighting was a central aspect of male bonding in traditional Zulu life.

It was a means of containing conflict, but it was also a practice of physical discipline that involved maintenance of one’s balance even when under attack.

Traditionally, Zulu boys went into the forest with their fathers at about the age of 16.

They cut their own induku and ubhoko, striking sticks and blocking sticks.

Sometimes the ends of these sticks were treated with intelezi – herbal extracts, cobra venom, or menstrual blood – to render the other fighter impotent.

Mike remembered that Jacob had taken up the sport much earlier than normal.

He also fashioned a distinctive, unconventional and stunningly effective style. Unlike the other boys, Mike said, his brother sometimes dispensed with the formalities.

He would offer his opponents a smiling visage and avoid the traditional stances expected in the ritualised combat.

Ukuxoshisa was a test of quickness, balance, and misdirection.

Winning blows were landed by whip-like motions involving a sudden flip of the wrist mid-strike and then ending in smacks to the head, torso, and legs of the opponent.

These moves were difficult to master, but Zuma proved precociously expert.

Sometimes, the young boy held his sticks casually, as if on a lark, as Mike remembered it.

Occasionally he even turned away from his opponent to crack a joke with other kids standing around.

When his opponent dropped his guard or joined in the teasing, though, he would pivot swiftly and strike suddenly, sweeping his opponent off his feet.

Now I understood better why his friends considered Zuma’s Zulu name, Gedleyihlekisa – the man who laughs while putting you at risk – so appropriate.

Stick fighting was essentially a form of combat in which one turned the fury of an adversary back against him. It was principally a test of balance and timing rather than brute strength.

When I asked the brothers about the broken relationship between Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, they expressed regret. “Mbeki doesn’t come here,” Joseph pointed out.

It did seem strange that someone considered a lifelong comrade for decades should never have visited the family. Mike supposed that the row had something to do with their differences over communism, but he wasn’t sure exactly how.

“The Boer government used to say we mustn’t like the communists, communists are a bad thing,” he offered, hesitating because he feared wandering out of his depth.

“What we see now is those people – they’re good, they’re not bad,” he continued. He believed that Mbeki didn’t agree with this assessment.

“Until today, our mind is upside down at what you hear on the TV and the radio,” Mike said, anger in his voice.

He said that he had once visited Brother, as he refers to Jacob, in Johannesburg and had seen how easily Mbeki and Zuma used to move around one another. “I don’t know what is happening now.”

Whenever he criticised Mbeki in front of Jacob, though, he was sternly reprimanded. “Even now he don’t talk bad about Mbeki,” he reported. “Even now, he says: ‘He’s our president.’”

The whole saga had left Mike feeling quite confused. “To us, he’s an enemy. But himself, he don’t treat him as his enemy. He treats him as his brother, even today!”

As we talked, we could watch Jacob ambling from one end of the compound to the other.

He slipped away periodically for short side meetings with provincial officials and foreign businessmen.

The businessmen included a mysterious Italian man who dodged me when I asked him what he was doing in Nkandla.

He had offered no name and hadn’t even bothered to come up with a reasonable cover story.

The Italian businessman and a second group of visitors surrendered their cellphones when they went off to have private discussions with Zuma.

This was a mark partly of Zuma’s caution and also of his heightened sensitivity about conversations that involved money he was raising for the campaign.

Not incidentally, it was also a reminder that so many people in South African politics, journalism and judicial circles were now worried that their conversations were being recorded.

» This is an edited extract of Rainbow over Nkandla by Douglas Foster, a MampoerShort available at  www.mampoer.co.za.

MampoerShorts are engaging, accessible and entertaining works of non-fiction sold across all digital platforms

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