In December 2000, I stayed up every night watching CNN as the challenges to George Bush’s election never quite achieved tidal-wave proportions. They ebbed away when Al Gore finally quit. In South Africa people shook their heads: “Do the Americans understand what they have done?”

Now the shoe is on the other foot. In December 2007, people around the world are asking the same thing about South Africans. How on Earth has the ANC elected Jacob Zuma its president?

Zuma is not a blathering idiot like Dubya, but there are many similarities between them. Americans elected Bush in a reaction to the (weak) social democracy of Bill Clinton and in revulsion against his liberal personal habits. Bush’s election represented a clear turn to the right, and Bush himself was only a talking head for the forces to which he was indebted and dedicated: the silent American machine of big business, the old boys’ club and old money.

Bush, however, appealed to “the average American” because he was, in American slang, a “good ol’ boy”. That’s a phrase from American South and it means he is one of us. He’s a white guy who knows that the victory of the North in the Civil War was a travesty, and he values the same things we do: Mom, pecan pie and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The fact that George Bush comes from old, old money and is as firm an establishment figure as they come didn’t bother his support base. Who cares about all that? He’s someone to whom we can relate!

As Bush did with Clinton, Zuma has benefited from a popular personal revulsion with Mbeki: his distance, his imperiousness, his sterility. Zuma, on the other hand, incessantly displays manly traits: possession of women, possession of children, that belly and the deep lovely singing voice raised in constant defence of the local version of the NRA. He’s a man’s man! And he has drawn the wool over people’s eyes with the same kind of evasive, fake folksiness that Bush deployed with such success in America.

Zuma isn’t even a populist. He’s a good ol’ boy from Nkandla who will be the front man for a set of business interests from which the public will avert its eyes. People starved for respect and friends won’t want to know, and the media are too inept to notice. The old white-tradition media will go on narrowly about Zuma’s lack of education and his rape and corruption problems. What they seemingly will never understand is that a large percentage of the population — the very same percentage that they trampled on happily and refused to educate during apartheid; what a coincidence — doesn’t care about any of that. Do they care about Winnie’s transgressions? Zuma’s alleged transgressions? No. Not a damn. Who cares about all that — they are people to whom we can relate. And they seem actually to like us (unlike the white establishment, which generally still dips itself in disinfectant after every encounter).

The defining characteristic of American life is total amnesia. It’s a nation (with exceptions, to be sure) of people who live in the present maxing out their credit cards. The movie where Drew Barrymore loses her memory every night and wakes up every morning to Adam Sandler’s cue cards reminding her who she is: a potent symbol of modern American life.

Under the impact of an unrelenting dose of 13 years of genuine and wannabe American TV blasting into every South African home that has achieved electricity, one sees the blank fog of amnesia rolling thickly over the Mzansi brain as well. Is there any other way to explain how the national media can call Zuma a left candidate when one of his happiest Johnny-come-latelys was the Grand Poobah of the local version of The Apprentice a few years back? Money, money, money, money? Money!

The Bush-Zuma comparison is made complete by Gore and Mbeki — two highly intelligent, bloodless, stiff men. The camera is not their friend. We can thank our lucky stars that the Mbeki camp didn’t roll out a long, passionate smooch for the president with Mrs Mbeki on national TV as a way of trying to prove his latent sexiness, the way the Democrats tried and failed with Al and Tipper. Wouldn’t that have been something.

To conclude: Jacob Zuma is a big step to the right for South Africa. His allies in Cosatu and the SACP have by definition also taken a big step to the right. Zuma and his camp: that is what the real right in South Africa looks like. To non-aligned people hoping to now get themselves and their children out of the sand, out of the mud, out of the rain, out of the public hospital queues, out of the sewage — don’t hold your breath. To the Yengenis and Agliottis of South Africa, on the other hand: roll right up to the trough in your 4x4s.


  • Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University of the Western Cape.


Terri Barnes

Terri Barnes is an associate professor of history and gender/women's studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a former faculty member in History, and higher education policy at the University...

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