The showman’s con

2019-03-18 08:06
Oudpres. Jacob Zuma waai Vrydag vir die skare op pad na die hof in Durban. Foto: Reuters

Oudpres. Jacob Zuma waai Vrydag vir die skare op pad na die hof in Durban. Foto: Reuters

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Let me tell you a story.

Once, many years ago, while working as a reporter, I was on an assignment to cover a visit by Jacob Zuma to Edendale.

I forget the occasion for his visit. He was not yet president but was on the rise, so it was a long time ago.

I drove to the meeting spot at the side of a dusty road and waited with those gathered there for his arrival. He was late. We waited and waited. No one seemed to mind his tardiness except me.

The crowd hanging around was made up largely of local women who were the other side of 50. They were the ones who didn’t work. Perhaps they had got someone to watch the grandchildren they cared for while their daughters and sons went off to work. Many wore the kind of aprons that women who work in the home wear to save their clothes. They were excited. They’d just gapped it for a while and would return to their washing and quotidian tasks later.

But, there was an air of anticipation and a sense of occasion about it all. It was a reprieve from the mundane to be enjoyed with friends and neighbours. The wait meant they had more time to exchange pleasantries and maybe a bit of neighbourhood news and gossip. There was much chatting and a great deal of laughter.

Eventually we saw the entourage approaching in the distance. One woman spotted the cavalcade and the cry went up. “He’s coming! He’s here!”

The women burst into song as the dust from the cars covered us, and when JZ got out his fancy vehicle, he must have been pretty chuffed at the reception he got. He was king of the hill, top of the heap.

As his security detail bustled around him, he positioned himself so he could talk to the crowd. He wore a black suit, tie and pointy shoes. He looked polished and expensive. There were probably 50 people there at most, but he addressed them as if they were in their thousands. He turned on the full charm offensive. He smiled, he laughed, he spoke earnestly and reverently. He cracked jokes. His timing was perfect and his delivery polished. What a showman. He was Mr Personality. Mr Charisma in buckets.

The few men there were hanging on every word he said. But it was the women’s reactions I was most interested in. As he spoke, I watched them — they were totally entranced. He asked them questions. They answered. He flirted with them. They giggled.

He sang for them. They danced. He worked his magic with them. They fell in love with him. He made them promises. They believed him. And I didn’t blame them. For some moments he was the star of their universe. The man that gave them hope. Hell, even the jaded journalist that is me fell in love with him for those moments. He was really that good.

He didn’t stay very long. Fifteen minutes, max. But the time he spent there was well spent. I had no doubt that each of them would tell their families every detail of that incredible day.

They had this information about him — how he looked, what he said, how he sang — and that information, as a commodity in their social lives, gave them power. They were there. They’d seen him. He’d spoken to them. They could tell their families all that.

Then he was gone, whisked away from their poverty and hardship into the fancy air-conditioned car he came in. As he left, they sang for him, waving as the cars disappeared from sight, covering us in dust once again.

I, the observer, saw what he had done. I’d not expected it at this level, seeing it for the first time, but I realised then how powerful the Zuma factor was. He needed no degree in politics, no empire of education to win the popularity contest. He harnessed his magnetism and hypnotised us. He fascinated us and lured us in, winning us over like that, winning votes and factional loyalty.

Amid the deluge of anti-Zuma rhetoric in the fallout of his terms of office, I get angry when I hear people say the man with no formal education is stupid. He is anything but.

Recently I was chatting to a man, an ANC member, who has great political acumen. I can’t name him here for the sake of his job. He was saying that the biggest mistake the ANC made was not appointing a senior advisor to run the country during Zuma’s term, a prime minister to take charge of the important stuff, to do the stuff Zuma has now proved he couldn’t. This man said Zuma was great at winning votes, but agreed that he had made a mess of a lot of things. If only we had done just that, the prime minister bit.

If only Zuma’s absence from office just meant he was no longer there to enchant the hopeful. Instead, we face a national crisis of corruption under his watch. Look around your city and see the effects of Zuma and what happens when the politics of patronage takes over. See his legacy. The Zuma effect has had lasting, catastrophic consequences for our country. His charm outwitted us and he got everything he wanted, to devastating effect for South Africa. Now who’s looking stupid? Not him, that’s for sure.

Read more on:    zuma  |  jacob  |  pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis
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