Sibusiso Tshabalala
Sibusiso Tshabalala

Zuma doesn’t read and other myths

“This is not a pipe,” reads the caption beneath the painting. With only a cursive scribble and signature — “Magritte” — you begin to wonder if this isn’t one of those overdone visual puns.

Magritte, the Belgian painter and provocateur is right. This is not a pipe; it is an image of a pipe. One could be fooled into thinking otherwise. The human brain is prone to make errors of perception. Perceptions aren’t single entities devoid of context and bias. When our perceptions trump everything else, we use myths to supplement the gaps in our thinking — the image becomes the pipe because it merely looks like one.

Now imagine an image of someone else, Jacob Zuma. Beneath his image reads the caption: “Tribalist, homophobe, misogynist and purported thief.” The truth that lurks beneath this image is simple: while Zuma might for some represent an embodiment of many of these things; conceptions of his personality reveal something deeper. As first citizen, Zuma has become an archetype of that which we despise. On this image, we project that which we loathe, the result? Mythmaking.

Zuma “the uneducated president” or Zuma “the senseless ruralitarian” — these are some of several images thoughtlessly tossed around. The labels, often grounded on bias, become stock images used to create a bigger myth — that South Africa’s rise or fall hinges on the man called Zuma.

“Imagine Barack Obama discussing details about climate change. Do you think Zuma would comprehend the dynamics of ultraviolet radiation harmful to the ozone layer?”

This snippet, mind you, is from a piece about South Africa’s international policy under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Public intellectual, Prince Mashele, does very little analysis about the actual bone of contention — whether South Africa’s international policy has weakened or strengthened under Zuma’s reign.

Instead, he trades the real issue, international policy, for Zuma’s image. For him, South Africa’s international relations and its place in global politics, hinges on the man called Zuma. The number of wives he has and his lack of formal education are both cited by Mashele. These appear to be far more important than international policy and institutions, according to Mashele’s logic.

The reader is then left with the idea that the signifier will always trump the issue. Because Zuma is uneducated in the formal sense, he is a bad leader. The ill-conceived term, “clever black” is now a fad, used by some of South Africa’s finest analysts to describe non-existent wonders. What value judgments do we make against the image of Zuma? Are these value judgments always objective, or do we enjoy trading empty stock phrases for honest intellectual debate?

UCT academic and writer Richard Calland’s new book, The Zuma Years, outlines at length, the changing political landscape of South Africa under Zuma’s administration. The now controversial quotable quote, Zuma “doesn’t read the proper stuff“, was of course extended to form part of this mythmaking.

Perhaps Calland did not err. We the readers, sightless consumers of bite-sized news, did. In the end, Calland’s 464-page account of the workings of power during Zuma’s reign was reduced to a dangerous bias against him — that he does not read at all. An easy add-on for a person with no matric certificate. The actual issue — how Zuma operates and manages his cabinet — became a side issue. The totems became important: his rural ways, stupidity and backwardness.

Magritte’s painting is a reminder of the danger of mythmaking. Myths are projected and in the end, they become all that we know.

The danger is multilayered. Yes, it is true that our public institutions have weakened significantly since May 2009. Patronage is dispensed at whim and public confidence in the organs of state has gradually diminished. It is also true that after May 2009, the quality of national discourse took a dive. The man of many errors became the canvas on which we project many of our biases and prejudices.

Four years later, the painting before us is not clear. Some strokes are noticeable: a country increasingly fraught with the challenges of inequality, unemployment and patronage.

No, we will not look beyond this archetype. We have made him into the hinge on which everything turns and twists. It is not about the issues but about him — a complete urban myth.

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