The Dangerous Language of Jacob Zuma

2015-06-05 15:48

President Jacob Zuma shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. (Misha Japaridze, AP)

South Africa’s Parliament is in budget season. Annually, Cabinet  presents departmental budgets for the House to approve. Given the impregnable majority enjoyed by the ruling ANC, it is a formality. But, they are instructive of the country’s trajectory in the coming year.

The President’s reply to his budget debate, then, leaves much to be desired. It made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. President Zuma’s style, rather than his substance, dominated press coverage. Contrary to his reply at the State of the Nation debate, Zuma tacitly acknowledged the contribution from the new Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, Mmusi Maimane. But, rather than deal with the substance of Maimane’s critique, Zuma rubbished him through an effective hand-jigging gesture, mocking accent, and sharp put-down.

This tactic is not unfamiliar; although, in Zuma’s era, it is far more sinister. Zuma’s naked contempt for Parliament is evident. He no longer engages with real or perceived opponents, preferring to play jester for his backbenches and supporters. This disengagement is telling. Even though his predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, enjoyed greater moral authority and bigger majorities, respectively, they at least pretended to care.

Zuma does not. We have abandoned the pretence of robust parliamentary democracy. The minimum standard, to pass constitutional muster, is done but the true spirit of democracy ebbs steadily away. We are in the era of realpolitik. This attitude has festered within, if not putrefied, the ANC’s ranks already. The alleged intimidation of the DA’s Chief Whip by a Deputy Minister while at the podium is just another infraction on a very long list.

The chattering classes may be dismissive of Zuma, distracted by what they see as an inability to engage. Partially true. Of more concern is that the President, and the ANC, actively choose not to. The rules are being rewritten, the institutions hollowed, the norm is being changed.

He is not ‘dumbing down’ things at all. Rather, he is eroding our language; limiting our communication; obliterating nuance and complexity; making us lose our appetite for detail. Not only does this play to Zuma’s cunning ‘salt-of-the-earth herd boy’ persona. It boxes in the opposition too. How does the DA, sandwiched between the ANC and EFF’s use of ethno-nationalism, rebut using the qualified language of reconciliation?

Wittgenstein writes ‘‘limits of my language means the limits of my world.’’ If our present language is illustrative, South Africa’s future is perilous.

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