My essay on how black anger, white obliviousness and the expedience of politics have foregrounded race in public dialogue in South Africa has just been published on Mampoer Shorts. It’s a 10,000-word “short”, so snazzy book-like cover aside, you should be able to read it in under two hours. It builds on an opinion piece I wrote earlier this year for the Daily Maverick at the height of debacle over Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’. Read it, give me your thoughts, and if I haven’t died of shame from the self-promotion I’ll be engaging in during the coming weeks, consider me immortal. Also, in that instance, let me know if you’d like to be involved in a follow-on project I’ll be doing along the same theme next year. But for now, here’s an excerpt. The full essay is available on Mampoer for $2.99.
In November 2012, the South African Communist Party (SAPC) in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province, called for legislation to protect the president’s dignity. Blade Nzimande, the communist party’s national leader, who also serves in Zuma’s cabinet as higher education minister, voiced tempered support for the call.
Nzimande explained that a national debate was necessary on what was acceptable in society given the growing anger in black communities over what he called the lack of respect shown by sections of the white population.
“The SACP is raising a much more fundamental issue”, he said in an interview on Radio 702. Nzimande argued that there was a difference between hurling insults and criticising poor performance, and that much of what has been directed at Zuma has tended toward the former. Criticism is always welcome, he said, but insults are not. Without this debate, he warned, the carefully negotiated peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy was in danger of coming undone.
Nzimande cited the specific example of cartoonist Zapiro, who in September 2008 drew ‘The Rape of Justice’ cartoon. Zuma at a time was fighting off charges of corruption and had been acquitted of rape two years earlier. In the cartoon Zuma’s staunchest supporters, including Nzimande, are seen holding down a distraught Lady Justice as Zuma undoes his belt and prepares to drop trou. “Go for it, boss!” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe is seen saying.
Zuma immediately sued Zapiro, Avusa Media, publisher of The Sunday Times, the paper in which the cartoon ran, and, for good measure, the paper’s then editor Mondli Makhanya. He demanded a total of R5-million for defamation and injury to his dignity.
But in October 2012, on the eve of the matter’s appearance in court, Zuma first dropped the amount sought to R100 000 before withdrawing the case entirely. Through his spokesperson, Zuma maintained that the depiction was hurtful and defamatory, but he claimed that he preferred to err on the side of constitutional freedoms, a claim that his critics did not fail to call implausible, disingenuous and tardy.
Zuma’s decision to drop the lawsuit against Zapiro might not have gone over altogether well with some of those who had been depicted as his accomplices.
Nzimande, for one, would seem to have wanted the matter to go court to set some sort of legal precedent. His voice became tinnier and strained during the radio interview when he brought up Zapiro’s ‘Lady Justice’. “The fact that Zapiro drew a cartoon depicting us as rapists is deeply offensive”, he said. “And for him to come and patronise us to say he was in the anti-apartheid struggle, that’s really even worse, because having fought against apartheid is no basis to insult people.”
He added that he sensed growing anger in sections of the black community about the insults hurled at Zuma, ostensibly because “some of these insults have got hugely racial and racist undertones”.
This isn’t the first time a Zuma defender employed the argument that an insult to Zuma is, in essence, an insult to South Africans in general and to black Africans in particular, as the ANC-alliance parlance goes. Thus, Nzimande’s comments followed on from those made by presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj, who earlier the same month had accused DA leader Helen Zille of racism for calling Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal, a “compound”. Despite its South Africa-specific, apartheid-era derived connotation of referring to the living quarters of black workers on the mines, the word had been used widely before Zille used it, even by members of Zuma’s administration.
But that didn’t matter. Once used by somebody white – especially the leader of an opposition party which the ANC has systematically labelled racist – the opportunity was created for his defenders to tap into black anger and white obliviousness.
It worked. Partially.