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President Zuma’s comment “we can’t think like Africans in Africa” were indefensible, writes Judith February.
Cape Town - One wonders what Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was thinking behind her desk at the African Union when she heard President Jacob Zuma’s now infamous comments at Wits University on Monday night? She probably squirmed just a little.
It was the worst of South African superiority at play and again provided insight into the somewhat crude thinking, which the president seems to indulge in when he believes that he is “amongst friend”. This time it was at an address to the Gauteng ANC Manifesto Forum.
To recap: inevitably the discussion turned to the controversial e-tolling decision by the government which eventually found Zuma saying, inter alia, “Gauteng must develop. It can’t be like Rustenburg (laughter)…”, and then the killer line; “We can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally. (Laughter) We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi. (Laughter) No.”
Immediately social media and other platforms were abuzz with reports that were confirmed by the increasingly authoritative Africa Check. The range of responses was typically broad and diverse as one might expect in a country like ours.
Yet, it really did seem as if this was a diplomatic blunder and that any rookie communications advisor would have been inclined to tell their subject to cut their losses, apologise and move on. Except that did not happen. Far from it in fact. We were fed an immediate response from the ANC saying that the president poked fun at a number of other places in the country without proper roads such as Danhauser and Umngundgundlovu and so this was not simply about Malawi.
We were also told that South Africa held Malawi in high regard.
Cold comfort for the people of Danhauser and Umngundgundlovu, and some bemused and angry responses in Malawi followed. Two days later, when it became clear that the story and the comments were gaining traction with a statement from a Malawian government ministry, Mac Maharaj finally decided an apology was in order.
One cannot help but feel that the damage control was unnecessary. The ANC ought to have stuck to principle and acknowledged that Zuma’s comments were unacceptable and had no place in a South Africa trying to cement its place in Africa and break the apartheid mould of insularity. That the comments feed into a “lowest common denominator” discussion about our misplaced sense of superiority is unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that many blindly defended Zuma’s comments even at the risk of sounding disingenuous.
English is not his first language, they cried. Or, George W Bush made some illogical remarks in his time and America survived those. These are simply our equivalent of the “Bush Years” or, the country is not falling apart, this is not “Watergate”, let’s not be “melodramatic”. Let’s laugh it off and carry on.
That simple? First, the fact that Bush made silly gaffes and had spin doctors reeling is irrelevant to our context. Bush was also responsible for marching the US into a war without a mandate. So that is not exactly an example to emulate. The argument also that English is not Zuma’s first language is becoming tired. It is also insulting to Zuma himself. There is no reason to believe that he is unable to express himself in a measured way in English.
It might not be “Watergate” but it is part of a broader context in which the president seems unable to veer from a scripted speech without causing the country embarrassment – be it on women’s rights, democracy or now on Africa. It is a cunning game into which Zuma draws his audience and which usually ends up with a comment which is off the cuff and deeply divisive.
Yet, the true problem with the knee-jerk blind loyalty is that it fails to consider context. We live in a country which has, since 1994, been battling to position itself in relation to the rest of the continent. That was clearly seen in the politics surrounding the appointment of the able Dlamini Zuma as AU head. In addition, the whiff of South African exceptionalism follows our companies into Africa. Surely our transition makes us “special”, even if our every day politics and socio-economic reality has shown just how ordinary – and even tawdry – we often are.
But the broader contextualisation, which many have failed to make, is between what politicians say and how that often translates into prejudice and often violence among citizens. We cannot divorce the rhetoric and the kind of precedent it is likely to set. What leaders say matters. It really is that simple.
So when Zuma says that we are not Malawi, the message conveyed is that Malawi is “inferior” and so the discourse of “them” and “us” becomes accepted and festers. It is not far off from deputy Trade minister Elizabeth Thabethe commenting on the Somali presence in Gauteng by telling Sapa, “You still find many spaza shops with African names, but when you go in to buy you find your Mohammeds and most of them are not even registered”. The inference? Mohammeds are “other” and they threaten the livelihood of South Africans – and they are here illegally.
And that is the kind of discourse that inflames unequal pockets of society and has its nadir in xenophobic violence, the likes of which we saw in 2008 and which persists today with police often turning a blind eye.
Unfortunately for Zuma, when he speaks he speaks on our behalf and what he says matters and reflects on us all. It will not always be perfect, that we must accept. Gaffes will happen. The question is whether the gaffes are just gaffes or whether they represent a conservative pattern of leadership that is out of step with our constitutional values and, as in this case, diminishes our relationships with other countries on the continent or elsewhere.
Embarrassingly for us, Zuma’s comments at Wits were indefensible and there really seems little point in trying to argue otherwise. It’s just a pity that it took two days for Maharaj to realise this and offer a belated apology.
*February is executive director for Democracy and Governance at the HSRC, Cape Town
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers