Defaming President Jacob Zuma

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

We would all prefer to be able to respect the President of South Africa, but he certainly doesn’t make it easy for us. I’m aware that – as Ray Hartley pointed out in a Times Live editorial last week – some South Africans may believe that Jacob Zuma’s elected position demands respect, because he is something more than an average or typical citizen.

But there is no necessary symmetry between respecting an office and respecting the person who happens to hold that office. And whatever symmetry might exist is counterbalanced by the responsibility those in high office hold to set an example for the rest of the country – not in their private lives, where I’m happy for them to do what they like, but rather in how they think it appropriate to relate to criticism, and how they choose to deploy the resources available to them.

In a country blighted by corruption, you’d want the President to take a firm stand against nepotism. Where we suffer from high rates of HIV infection, we would hope for a clear message on safe sex. And so on and so forth. We might also reasonably expect, given that the President frequently hopes to be taken seriously outside of the borders of South Africa, that he would be somewhat concerned with reputation, and with appearing to be a man who takes serious things seriously, while ignoring that which is trivial.

Jacob Zuma is not that sort of man. His only consistent claim to being “presidential” appears to be the fact that he happens to be President. There may of course be all sorts of examples of his effective leadership within the ANC, but on those questions I must defer to the likes of Stephen Grootes. The average citizen sees little of that, while seeing numerous examples of hypersensitivity to criticism, ineffective and confused moral leadership, and apparent tolerance for mixed signals on corruption and on the appropriate deployment of state resources.

This year has been a particularly bad one for Zuma’s reputation, and he seems intent on closing the year with some textbook examples of bigmanism in his lawsuits against Jonathan Shapiro (for the “rape of justice” cartoon) and Daryl Peense (for spilling a drink on – or trying to throw a drink at – his person).

February was perhaps his most uncomfortable month. It started with Babygate, where the public learnt about Zuma and Sonono Khoza’s love-child – and soon thereafter were reassured that it was no love-child after all, but that he was instead married to Khoza. Fortunately, this confusing and morally ambiguous situation (which was none of our business, according to Zuma’s statement on February 3) was clarified by God, speaking through Ray McCauley and the National Interfaith Leadership Council. “Faith dictated that he [JZ] be absolved”, and we should “leave this episode behind us, regrettable as it is, and move on as a nation”.

And so we did. We moved on to hearing from Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya that the dissatisfaction felt by some South Africans on the Government’s response to crime “has no basis in fact” – while Jacob Zuma’s security detail showed us just how committed they were to rooting out crime by putting a bag over Chumani Maxwele’s head, driving him to a police station, and interrogating him as to which side of the fence he was on at Polokwane, where the populist JZ dethroned the philosopher king Mbeki.

Fortunately for Maxwele, he could at least report that he was an ANC member, and thereby save himself from the waterboarding and fingernail extraction that might have befallen him if he had confessed to supporting one of the opposition parties. But his support for the ruling party could not save him from interrogation, nor from the day he spent in a prison cell and the raiding of his house by plain-clothes police officers, who went through his personal diaries and university notebooks looking for incriminating details.

All of this happened because Maxwele allegedly showed the blue-light convoy the finger as it drove by (although Maxwele claims that he just “waved them away”). This response to perceived criticism is deeply troubling, as it demonstrates a lack of commitment to free speech, and to allowing dissent from the “official” view. And seeing as the official view seems to tolerate homophobia (not only in the form of Jon Quelane, ambassador to Uganda, but also in our endorsement of the UN decision to remove sexual orientation from a list of unacceptable forms of discrimination), it seems entirely appropriate for the criticism to continue in 2011 and beyond.

The upcoming court cases should provide ample opportunity for this, and if you’re doing the whole Christmas thing, I can think of no better gift for Zuma – and your fellow South Africans – than that you keep on trying to remind our leaders that there are real problems to address, and that some of the battles Zuma and others fight in court don’t merit anyone’s attention, let alone the hundreds of thousands of Rands they are likely to cost in court.

Daryl Peense may well have tried to throw a drink at Zuma, although it’s worth noting that according to Times Live, the chairperson of Gold Circle Racing said neither he nor Zuma had even noticed – and they had been walking together at the time. And while it’s certainly rude to throw a drink at the President, are columns ridiculing these lawsuits not ruder still? Not every slight to our dignity deserves a legal response, and one would incur fewer slights to one’s dignity by choosing to act in a dignified manner, ignoring things that frankly are not worthy of your attention.

Likewise with the Shapiro cartoon depicting Zuma’s rape of Lady Justice which has led to a R5-million lawsuit – the 11th lawsuit for defamation that Zuma has lodged against South African media houses. Of course it is uncomfortable for Zuma to be reminded of the rape accusations and trial of 2005/2006, but the cartoon could just as easily be read as “a metaphor for how he dodged the day in court on corruption charges he had once ardently wished for”, as Hartley points out.

It is on these interpretive possibilities that much satire relies, and it is on the possibility of risky and sometimes provocative satire that no small portion of our faith in press freedom rests. Readers of the Daily Maverick need no reminder of how vital press freedom itself is, and it is difficult to see a lawsuit like this one as anything other than an attempt to “whip up popular sentiment against the commercial media”, as Grootes argued last week.

Instead of responding with lawsuits, spilled drinks and satirical cartoons provide an opportunity for Zuma and the ANC to demonstrate that South Africa does not conform to the stereotype of “just another country in Africa”, where the spectres of thug rule, cronyism and a lack of respect for free speech and democratic processes come easily to mind. This means accepting criticism, no matter how robust, within the bounds set by laws around things like hate speech and defamation.

As Hartley points out, it was after the publication of the cartoon in question that Zuma went on to become President, so a claim of reputational damage is going to be rather difficult to prove. Zuma certainly has a reputation for various things, but that reputation is largely a consequence of his own choices. Attempting to shift the blame is both cowardly, and un-presidential.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President. And the same goes for you, Jacob Zuma.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.