Paul McNally
Paul McNally

Be honest. Is your Jacob Zuma T-shirt ironic?

My shirt is bright yellow. Zuma’s rows of baby teeth are spread across my belly. On the way to the shop a guy says to me, softly with a nod to my shirt, “Viva Zuma”. He’s missed my shrewd irony, sees me as a JZ supporter and who can blame him? My stab at humour has assisted, by spreading camaraderie, the president I abhor.

On the way back home a construction worker cheerfully calls me JZ and asks for a cigarette. A group of kids strewn out on the grass — they must be eight years old — see my shirt and start chanting “Zuma, Zuma, Zuma”.

What’s weird is if I was wearing a Helen Zille T-shirt they’d be no cheering and most people would laugh. They might pause for a split second, but even a staunch DA supporter would probably chuckle at a late twenties man with a middle aged woman in tinted specs plastered across his nipples.

My neighbourhood’s reaction shows there’s no doubt in the fanatical mind of the JZ supporter — this is what’s needed for irony to gain traction. They must doubt what they love and believe in, just a smidge, but JZ supporters don’t. When they see my T-Shirt it raises their spirits.

I can’t approach a kid who’s screaming “Zuma”, sit him down and explain that my endorsement of the president is absurd to the point that it should cause a laughter response. “Imagine that! Supporting Jacob Zuma. Hilarious.” By slapping this on my body in a gratuitous way I’m letting you know that I am opposed to its content.

And this is how undetected irony backfires. It happened in the US: Will Ferrell’s damning impersonations of George Bush have been criticised for helping Dubya along in the 2000 elections. Ferrell portrayed Bush as a simpleton, but a likeable one. I’m not going to swing the election, but in a country where political campaigns are blunt and lamppost boards are a major target (which is essentially what I am, but mobile) I become an advert for JZ.

Even when it’s understood it’s true: the joke is crude, but what can you expect from a T-shirt? Unfortunately it’s also cowardly. In high school there was a fad of writing WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) on your satchel in tip-ex to mock the Christian kids. You were indistinguishable from the kids who were sincere, except you were prone to cackling if a teacher questioned you. But anti-Christian slogans weren’t allowed — you’d face severe wrath from parents and teachers — and “Yay 4 Evolution!” just wasn’t catchy. So if you wanted to make a negative statement and you weren’t creative or gutsy you used irony.

Nothing has changed. Zuma is perfect for the ironic T-shirt because he epitomises what I don’t want but I can’t offer up an alternative. In that sense I’m fanatical in simply being anti — which means I probably should turn DA, get a Zille T-shirt and wear it with pride. Too bad no one would take me seriously.