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Zuma memes

In the US coverage of President Thabo Mbeki, you constantly bump into words such as “aloof”, “technocratic”, “professorial” and, with regard to Aids in particular, “eccentric”. These are strands of the DNA of the dominant memes about him over here.

Jacob Zuma’s memes are still in flux, which means he still has some control over them. Robyn Dixon, the Los Angeles Times‘s South Africa correspondent, called him an “enigma” in Thursday’s editions. In other words, he still has space to define himself, showers, Umshini Wami and sexual etiquette notwithstanding.

As I argued previously, his personal story has the potential to resonate in the US, especially as narrated by in the opening paragraph’s of the latest dispatch from the New York Times‘s Michael Wines. Under the headline “Survivor is poised to lead South Africa”, the story begins:

When Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the man who is likely to be South Africa’s next president, was 21 years old, South Africa’s apartheid government condemned him to 10 years imprisonment on Robben Island, in a cell not far from that of Nelson Mandela.

It was 1963, the nadir of the liberation movement: the jail was overcrowded, conditions were execrable, and freedom, much less national liberation, was a distant dream.

Mr Zuma set up a prison choral group to sing liberation songs, and organised weekend traditional dances. He told Zulu stories at night and delivered political lectures each week. Mr Zuma received few if any visitors during a decade in jail, said Ebrahim Ebrahim, his cellmate, yet he was the self-appointed morale officer for his block. “The prison conditions were such that they wanted to break our morale and spirit,” said Mr Ebrahim, who later followed Mr Zuma into politics. “He wouldn’t be broken.”

It could be his epitaph. Mr Zuma, 65, has faced a hardscrabble childhood, illiteracy, war, a decade in jail and, most recently, a string of government prosecutions on charges of corruption and rape. Lazarus-like, he has surmounted them all.

You have to be pretty flinty not to warm to the description of Zuma as self-appointed morale officer even as he received “few if any visitors” (nice, pathos-enhancing touch) during his 10 years inside. Handled well, the JZ narrative could be dynamite in this market. “Comeback Kid” Bill Clinton is still hugely popular in the US — if he could run for a third term, he would probably win — even as most people still cringe at the memory of what he did with Monica Lewinsky (every last detail on which was seared into the national consciousness by grand inquisitor Kenneth Starr).

The LA Times‘s Dixon offers the makings of a starkly different meme, and it’s anything but heartwarming. Her Thursday piece is headlined “ANC leader keeps S Africans in dark”. The subhead reads: “Jacob Zuma’s penchant for being secretive, which served him well in his political rise, is seen as a liability because of unease among many as to what he stands for.” (Having just read Zuma’s inaugural speech as ANC president, I’m not sure it presents much to counter the impression that he plays his cards close.)

Here’s how Dixon presents Zuma at the top of her story:

The 65-year-old Zuma, who led the ANC’s intelligence gathering activities in its exile period during apartheid, is known as one of the most secretive politicians in the ruling party …

Mark Gevisser, author of a biography of South African President Thabo Mbeki, said: “I think working clandestinely is as much a feature of Jacob Zuma’s approach as it is of Thabo Mbeki’s.

“I think he’s a very secretive politician,” Gevisser said. “I have yet to see a substantial interview with Jacob Zuma where he talks about himself or his ideas.”

So little is known about Zuma that it is unclear how many wives and children he has.

The impression is given that there is something a little sinister about this guy. A spy. Secretive. Operates clandestinely. Unease is reinforced by what follows:

“I think he lacks moral fibre. He’s a somewhat dubious character,” said Gillian Gardaer, 36, a university lecturer in Johannesburg, speaking in a private capacity. Gardaer, a member of the coloured, or mixed race, community, said it was difficult to know what Zuma’s policies would be. “I don’t know what Jacob Zuma’s position is on things, where he stands,” Gardaer said. “He’s an elusive sort of character.”

Dixon does get around to mentioning Zuma on Robben Island, but in a perfunctory manner. Nothing about his indomitable spirit or leadership qualities. No redolent phrases like “hardscrabble childhood”. Simply: “Fellow prisoners recount that the young Zulu activist was an enthusiastic choral singer and dancer. He also gained education at the informal school run by the prisoners.”

If Zuma is to be a successful president, he needs to manage his memes while they are still malleable. Once a meme takes hold, it can be very hard to shift, especially if it’s negative.


  • Simon Barber is a Business Day columnist. Between 2002 and the end of 2014, he represented Brand South Africa in the US. His association with South Africa dates to 1977 when the Sunday Times gave him his first full-time job as a reporter. To help him get acquainted with the country as it then was, the editor, Tertius Myburgh, sent him, as a junior understudy, to help cover the Biko inquest. He has been involved with South Africa, in one way or another, ever since.


  1. MidaFo MidaFo 22 December 2007

    Thank you Mr Barber.

    You have presented me with a word.

    As it has been said ‘In the beginning was the word’

    And may I say the word was Meme?

  2. Liansky Liansky 22 December 2007

    This blog only succeeds in confirming that the anti-black SA Media is of no use to our people. May they suffer greatly.

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