Art isn’t really a big deal round here. Sure, the big cities have a gallery or two, and like every country we do have a community of both artists and art lovers, but the vast majority of us, even those who are better educated and better off, are about as likely to pop into a gallery over the weekend as we are to attempt the world naked backward-running record. We don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with it, it just doesn’t occur to us. Except for last year. Last year, we all became rabid art critics for a month or two.
I am not a political animal. I vote my conscience at election time, but I’ve never joined a party or attended a meeting. And I’ve tried to avoid writing about politics on this blog. This has not been easy. While I’ve been tucked away writing about Aardvarks and two-minute noodles, things have been happening. Amazing things. Tragic things. Funny things. And I’ve set them on one side and soldiered on with the noodles.
Why? Not because I’m sensitive about these things, or even because I think you would be bored. You wouldn’t. It’s just that every time I set out to do so, and I try to give the story some context, I find myself writing a book. And not a short one.
But no more. This week, I’m going to talk about politics. I’ve worked out how to do it. It’s actually pretty easy. All I have to do is get you to understand that you will never understand. And the easiest way to do that? I’m going to tell you a little about our president. No explanations, no examinations or analyses, just some facts. I’ll even number them for you.
While I do so, remember one thing. South Africa is a democracy. Not a dictatorship, or a banana republic, or a puppet state. This man has been chosen because he is the best of our leaders. Or so the theory goes.
No more chitchat. Here are 7 things you need to know about Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.
1. He has no formal education.
And I don’t mean he doesn’t have a degree. I mean he did not finish school. His stepmother taught him to read and write. While you and I were sitting in a classroom, he was standing out in a field, looking after cattle. And now he leads a country.
Don’t take this to mean that his party, the ANC, is made up of ignorant farm boys, either. It is not. It is the country’s ruling elite, littered with degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. Think, instead, of how smart this makes him.
2. He’s a spook.
Like Putin in Russia, Zuma was a spy boss. While the ANC was in exile in the 80’s, he became Head of Underground Structures and then Chief of the Intelligence Department.
Remember that the ANC was an underground revolutionary movement. They were at war. An underground war. Dodgy things happened. And Zuma knows about all of them. He knows where the bodies are buried.
3. He’s been married a few times.
Six. Zuma has been married six times. One of his wives committed suicide. Another divorced him. And the other four? He’s still married to them. He’s a polygamist.
If you think four is a crazy number of wives for the president of a modern democracy, don’t worry. He’s engaged again. He’s seventy.
4. He’s a father.
An estimated 22 times over. And yes, I did say estimated. Our president, you see, is a rather virile man. Six wives have not proved equal to the task of keeping him satisfied. So he gets around a bit on the side. Every now and then, illegitimate children emerge from the shadows. The latest one being the daughter of one of the country’s top football coaches.
If you haven’t started getting an idea of how different our political landscape is, maybe I can help you out here. Close your eyes and picture an American election. I know you’re not all American, but we all follow American elections on TV like we’re watching a game show.
Now picture one of those endless debates on CNN leading up to the election, with grey haired and patrician-looking pundits from both sides leaning forward on their elbows while one of them casually drops the sentence “We think Obama might have about twenty two children, but no-one is sure.”
5. He nearly went to jail for corruption.
This one gets complicated. But it boils down to this. While Zuma was deputy president, a man called Shabir Shaik was charged with, tried for, and found guilty of corruption. Specifically, he was found guilty of soliciting a bribe for Zuma. He went to jail for 15 years. And then the prosecutors turned on Zuma. There was much toing and froing, but to cut a long story short, the charges were dropped when it was found that there had been political interference. Zuma was made president soon after. Shaik stayed in jail though.
For two out of his fifteen years. He was paroled on medical grounds. It turned out the poor man was dying. Of high blood pressure. That was in 2009. He’s still dying. On a golf course in Durban. Luckily, for the integrity of our nation, no-one suspects for even a second that Zuma had anything to do with his release.
6. He’s been on trial for rape, too.
Soon before Zuma came into power, the daughter of a struggle comrade spent the night at his home (she was a friend of his daughter). The next day, she laid a rape charge against him. It went to trial. He was acquitted. It turned out the girl was emotionally unbalanced, so her testimony was unreliable. He was no rapist. He just had consensual sex with one of his daughter’s emotionally unbalanced friends while she was a guest in his house.
Just as an aside, the girl was HIV positive. Zuma knew this. She was a prominent AIDS activist. And he was head of the National AIDS council. He was careful, though. He didn’t wear a condom, but he made sure he had a shower when he was done.
Don’t even try to fit this into that CNN scenario. It will give you a headache;
“Sure, Romney boned his daughter’s friend in his living room. But the judge said she was into it. I don’t see what this has to do with the elections…”
7. His house has a very nice fence.
South Africa’s ministerial handbook says that ministers may make improvements to their private homes to the tune of R100 000 of taxpayers’ money. Zuma’s private home is in a place called Nkandla. It’s been improved. To the tune of R206 000 000. If that looks suspicious to you, don’t worry. Zuma’s home has been declared a National Key Point, under an old apartheid law that was never revoked. And the money was all spent on security.
That’s right. 24km down a dirt road from a tiny rural settlement is a collection of thatched huts surrounded by a R206 000 000 fence. We promise. Our government told us.
I have barely scratched the surface here. This is a complex, interesting, and many-facetted man. I find him terrifying. How do we find our way back to normal after this guy?
I haven’t given you much detail. But I hope you’ve seen enough to know that my land is nothing like your land. We follow our own set of rules here. They will make no sense to you, but they do have their own internal logic.
So If I tell you tomorrow that a provincial minister bought a R15 000 artwork in a Macdonald’s with his government credit card, and still has a job, go with it. If I tell you that the ruling party has a lucrative investment arm that is allowed to do business with the government, accept it. If I tell you that thirty billion rand goes missing in the hands of our government every year with no consequences, just smile and nod, and keep on reading.
There’s lots to see. It’s a madhouse. And you’ve seen who’s running the asylum.
There was a lovely story doing the rounds this week. A report appeared in a few of our local papers saying that our neighbours, Swaziland, had enacted a new law making it a criminal offence for witches to fly their brooms at a height of over 150 metres. Should they do so, they could get arrested and fined up to R500 000.
It seems crazy at first. It isn’t. The law was announced by Civil Aviation Authority marketing and corporate affairs director Sabelo Dlamini. It is not some arbitrary assault on the rights of free flying witches. The law has been enacted for the protection of the country’s airspace. It also prohibits people flying radio controlled helicopters or children’s kites at 150 metres. See. It’s all very sensible. And fair. Witches are free to do whatever they please below the magical 150 metre cut off point. It might be prudent of them to get their broomsticks kitted out with altimeters though.