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What Zuma did not say on Human Rights Day

Rather than regurgitate what his Excellency said at Athlone Stadium on occasion of the celebration of Human Rights Day on March 21, I would rather focus on what he did not say. What attracts me is the eloquence with which he did not say what he did not say. I stand in awe at the elegance with which he managed to leave things unsaid, the brilliance with which he left hanging questions unasked and the ease with which he left apparent provocations rather unprovoked. Still I sit here wondering about the little interventions he could have made, the song he could have sung; the dance he sure could have danced and the deep middle-of-the-speech laugh he could have laughed. But he didn’t. I suppose, this is because this was a solemn national occasion in which the president appeared in his capacity as president of the country.

When Patricia de Lille was being heckled and deliberately drowned out by a rather large section of the crowd, Zuma would, under normal circumstances, have stepped forward, unleashed his charm, calmed the crowds and brought them back in line. Haven’t we seen him do this again and again? In the process he would have reminded them that their behaviour was contrary to the spirit of both the day and the Constitution. He would have told them that their behaviour was in contradiction of specific sections of the speech he was going to deliver shortly. What if the crowd defied him and treated him just like Minister Jeff Radebe, whose attempts to calm the crowds bore no fruit? What if the Athlone crowd treated him just like they did De Lille? What if they embarrassed him in front of the thousands at the stadium and the millions who were watching on TV? If that had happened, my appreciation of Zuma would have overflown. But he did not do or say any of these things I am dreaming up for this was a solemn occasion in which the president appeared in his capacity as president of the country.

Early on in his speech he refers to May 8 1996 when an overwhelming 87% of the members of the Constitutional Assembly adopted our democratic Constitution. But he remarkably fails to mention the memorable and widely celebrated “I am an African” speech of former president Thabo Mbeki on that very day at that very occasion. Having come that close, I sat in anticipation of a quotation from the famous Mbeki speech. It never came. Whereas Dr AB Xuma, Professor ZK Matthews, the esteemed Sefako Mapogo Makgatho and Nelson Mandela receive fond and glowing mentions — rightfully so — Mbeki typically received zero mention. Mbeki is not the only one who is surprisingly left unmentioned. Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, a man who stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Nelson Mandela as an icon of our liberation, does not even make it as a hint or a footnote in the speech. Sobukwe disappears into the generalised mist of “the people who perished in Sharpeville”. This is in sharp contrast to recent events valorising the life and works of Sobukwe initiated by no greater an organisation than the Nelson Mandela Foundation in partnership with the South African History Archive. Since these events occurred less than a month ago, I was sure that his Excellency would have used his speech to build on this appreciation of Sobukwe and make a link between Human Rights Day, Sharpeville and Sobukwe. It took De Lille to make a special mention of Sobukwe as the leader of the protests against pass laws, which led to the March 21 1960 Sharpeville massacre — perhaps her PAC roots got the better of her?

Because of the things skilfully left unsaid, the speech of his Excellency reads like a spirited but probably unsuccessful attempt at historical revisionism. In terms of this revision, the history of the South African struggle for human rights begins in 1923 “when the African National Congress called for the adoption of a Bill of Rights in South Africa”. The next leap comes in 1943 when “a full and detailed Bill of Rights was adopted by the leadership of the African National Congress in 1943 [referred to as the African Claims]”. Next comes the Freedom Charter of 1955. Then comes 1994 and voila, my fellow South African, you have your combo of human rights complete with the necessary structures, galvanised by the founding documents and seasoned with the spicing of impeccable values. So, what is your problem?

Tell me.


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

    Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.