Some time in the 1950s, a young man stood at the gates of a home in Cato Manor.
His mother was the domestic worker inside.
The white owners wouldn’t allow him to enter.
So instead, he went in search of jobs within the city.
His father, a policeman, died when he was about four or five and he had stood by his mother ever since – herding cattle and goats instead of attending school, moving on a regular basis as his mother struggled to make ends meet.
Imagine being that teenage boy?
Last week that boy, now a 74-year-old man, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, fired five of his cabinet ministers, shuffled five others and rang 10 changes to his deputy ministers.
The president’s middle name supposedly originates from a Zulu phrase – translated into English it speaks volumes: “I cannot keep quiet when someone pretends to love me with a deceitful smile.” He certainly hasn’t been quiet. Time and time again Zuma’s imminent demise has been predicted by all and sundry.
We laugh at his number-stuttering, we roll our eyes at the number of wives, we’re bemused by his giggling in parliament, his failure to account for Marikana is appalling, we accuse him of being a puppet, of being corrupt, of being without a moral compass.
Yet every time, just when it seems he cannot last, he comes back stronger.
He failed in his attempt to become Kwa-Zulu-Natal premier, he served under Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy secretary-general of the ANC (how awkward now), president Thabo Mbeki dismissed him as deputy president, no one thought he’d succeed at Polokwane.
Yet here he is, still standing and arguably the most powerful person in South Africa. Our president is not a survivor. He is a master strategist and unless we understand what drives the man, and where his power lies, we’ll fail to thwart his assault on the democratic project South Africa is.
To be clear – it isn’t the man, but the idea he represents, that threatens the pillars of our young nation.
To this end, we need to borrow another historical lens through which to build our understanding.
In 1977, Steve Biko – in explaining to a European journalist why the black student movement of Saso had broken away from the (progressive) white-dominated Nusas – said that “any changes which are to come can only come as a result of a programme worked out by black people . . . they needed to defeat the one main element in politics which was working against them: a psychological feeling of inferiority which was deliberately cultivated by the system.
“So, equally too, the whites – in order to be able to listen to blacks – needed to defeat the one problem which they had, which was one of ‘superiority’.” (Steve Biko, I Write What I Like).
Zuma did not become president of both the ANC and South Africa by patronage alone.
He is a popular man and his popularity stems, in my mind, from the spirit of black consciousness (not its principles), from the need to defeat black inferiority and kick white superiority into touch.
Zuma is idolised because he is the goatherd who became president, because this bush-educated black man has prospered in a white look-down-your-nose world. Zuma certainly isn’t Biko reincarnated and he’s unlikely to be nominated for the Nobel peace prize, but he symbolises the potential and innate value of every black person who has been left outside the gates.
It’s this idea that gives him his ultimate power and adorns the bandwagon that every new minister has jumped upon. We are black – see what we can do. The same spirit informs the response to the rational, factual, “we need a debate” Helen Zille and the black woman in the Spur who stood up to the white giant who threatened to silence her with a “p**s klap”.
Black South Africans are in the process of standing up, taking back their space.
EFF leader Julius Malema’s ilk have branded it as “take back our land”, but it’s not about owning a piece of turf on which to run a few cattle.
It’s very much about Biko’s programme of reinventing the black psyche.
But again, Biko’s ideas simply function as a façade for the Zuma bandwagon – Gedleyihlekisa is driven by something deeper. What motivates the man? Money, power, affirmation? Fluent in seven languages, he quotes from Shakespeare readily.
Dubbed the “Teflon president”, he seems impervious to criticism even from the likes of Ahmed Kathrada, Sipho Pityana, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ronnie Kasrils, Malema and Kgalema Motlanthe.
Barbara Hogan (appointed a minister by Motlanthe and axed by Zuma when he first arrived) at her husband’s memorial took the opportunity to ask whether the president had “ears to hear and eyes to see the poor and unemployed?”.
No ordinary criticism from no ordinary activist. Zuma is unmoved. In leading a rendition of Umshini wam on Saturday at the launch of a social housing project, he seemed invigorated, in charge.
This is not the image of a man worried about his future. So what gives? Is he totally devoid of empathy and morals?
Or is the boy who had no father to guide him, the teenager who was refused entry to see his mother and the young man who spent 10 years on Robben Island, doing what he’s always done – shutting out the detractors, working the crowd, pulling the strings of his patronage networks to ensure that he remains #1?
Life, in the main, has not been kind to him. South Africa has not been kind to him. Why should he care? Why shouldn’t he use his position of power to secure comfort for himself and those he cares about? Surely he is owed something?
Apartheid/colonialism has to answer for many things, but it did not create black inferiority/white superiority. It amplified it, turned it into an efficient mechanism for control of resources and distribution of wealth – the ultimate patronage machine.
The Zuma bandwagon is no different – it ploughs the same furrow. To defeat it, we have to take Biko seriously, we have to go deeper, we have to understand the source of this “psychological feeling” of inferiority/superiority.
Madam Zille, that’s the conversation of national importance.