Jacob Zuma, wives, and the wrath of God

JZOver the weekend, I had a chat with a man from Nkandla (who will remain anonymous). As you no doubt know, that’s where Jacob Zuma is building his palace private residence, and it’s also the place that his own spokesperson (Mac Maharaj) didn’t want to visit because he feared he’d be unable to defend it once he had (at least, if you trust the interview recorded in Richard Calland’s book, The Zuma Years).

We didn’t talk about the residence, but I suspect that this man from Nkandla would be opposed to the deception surrounding the expenses incurred there, as well as the quantum of the expenses. Another point of agreement between us was with regard to the irrelevance of the number of wives Zuma has, both in terms of his political credibility, as well as to negative judgements regarding what Zuma costs the people of South Africa.

The political credibility part is less controversial, and unless you insist on monogamy for whatever reason, I imagine you agree that this shouldn’t impact on our judgments regarding Zuma (assuming, of course, full volition on the part of the wives and so forth). As for the costs incurred on the public purse, my interlocutor and I agreed that if the law allowed for polygamy, and for public support of the President’s wives, then it’s the law that needs to change, rather than Zuma that needs to change.

One could argue that Zuma should set the example, and defer the marrying of anyone other than who he was already married to (when taking office) until after leaving the position. But this would mean a less than full acceptance of Zuma’s cultural values, and would to my mind run contrary to the cultural inclusivity our Constitution demands. It would be an assertion that norms other than Zuma’s were standard, and that he’s allowed to contravene those – and practice his own, (implied) aberrant or inferior culture, so long as it’s done in a way that’s convenient to the rest of us.

It may be that we don’t want to be as culturally inclusive as the Constitution demands. But that’s not the argument here – instead, this would be an instance of insisting on the primacy of a particular set of norms under the guise of financial concerns. Instead, we should say that financial concerns disallow one set of cultural norms from being as well supported as others (if we wanted to be honest about the matter). Or even more honestly, we could say that culture X is somehow inferior to Y.

But until we do either of those things, the point is that it’s not Zuma’s problem that his wives cost more to support than Mbeki’s did. He could act in a supererogatory fashion, and choose to save us all some money, but he’s under no obligation to, and we shouldn’t judge him more harshly if he doesn’t choose to save us that money. That, at least, is what the man from Nkandla and I agreed over the weekend.

We didn’t talk about Zuma’s frequent insertion of religious rhetoric into political discourse, and I suspect that on that point, we would probably have disagreed. As he’s done in the past, when asserting that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back, or claiming that “humanity has vanished” without fear of God, Zuma again inserted God into the National Elections in an address to the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo, on Sunday. Zuma is quoted as saying:

If you don’t respect those in leadership, if you don’t respect authority then you are bordering on a curse. Whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church. That’s why he says you, as a church, should pray for it.

It’s easy to say that he’s appealing to a lowest common denominator here, in that an estimated 80% of South Africans are Christians. But this goes further than simply drawing on the support of like-minded people in claiming that he is “doing God’s work”, for example. This is divisive and judgemental (on spurious, metaphysical grounds, rather than principled ones), in that he’s threatening voters who might be tempted to vote for someone other than the ANC with being cursed.

Contrary to the entire point of the democratic process, whereby we freely choose our representatives based on their positions and performance in delivering what they promised us, here your mortal soul is in danger if you don’t vote ANC – regardless of positions or performance. Even if Zuma believes this to be true, threats that would be more suited to Medieval times are surely unbecoming of the President of a nation?

Furthermore, the opportunism of the rhetoric is perhaps even more clear in the next sentence, where he asserts that God has made a connection between “the government and the church”. By this, he has to mean that this government is looked upon with favour by a particular (his) god. He can’t mean God smiles on “governments” in general, because then God must also have approved of PW Botha’s government; and he can’t mean that God is only “connected” in some non-judgemental way to governments, because if so, what’s the point of highlighting an arbitrary connection, even as you say voters should pray for the government?

In today’s Business Day, Peter Bruce wonders “how much more can the ANC take“. While Bruce mostly addresses the political processes by which Zuma could be ousted as the ANC leader, this question can also be raised with respect to those who vote ANC. As he did in 2011, he’s blackmailing voters into supporting him through claiming that it’s only through him, and his party, that their souls will be safe.

Shame on him.

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.