Helen ZIlle. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Helen ZIlle. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Once Jacob Zuma was behind bars it was decent of Helen Zille to write about his “warm” side, and his kindness to her. But she should have left it at that rather than attempt ham-fisted sociological generalisations.

Much wiser would have been to follow the example of Olive Schreiner after  the 1895 fiasco known as the Jameson raid when asked by a number of foreign newspapers to write about the fall of Cecil Rhodes.

“I could have made much money, of which I am in need,” Schreiner wrote to her mother. “But I attacked Rhodes frankly and fearlessly and endlessly when he was in power, and therefore I can afford to be quiet now.”

Zille was at the forefront of holding Zuma “frankly and fearlessly and endlessly” to account. But now, instead of remaining quiet or merely recalling his kindness to her, Zille has proceeded to assert that the former president is a traditionalist, more aligned to feudal values, and so does not understand either the constitution or the concept of corruption. “At the heart of it,” she wrote, “this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African society.”

To say Zuma is a traditionalist is commonplace. Yet to state that therefore he is “totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism” reveals that Zille appears to be tone deaf about how her assertions repeatedly alienate the very constituency her party needs to grow: middle-class black citizens. Rightly, she says that our situation is complex, then unravels herself by reducing “African culture” to gross oversimplifications. Once again, unnecessarily and gratuitously, the DA’s most prominent leader has caused a storm with flat-footed generalisations that stumble into what can easily be interpreted as obsolete and patronising potholes.

By all accounts Cecil Rhodes was a charming man. He was also something of a cook. At first Schreiner was very taken with him. But once she realised the full extent of his corruption, she judged: “He looked good and evil in the face — and chose evil.” Much the same could be said of Zuma. From his appointment of pliant ministers, docile prosecutors and crooked policemen it is clear that he knew exactly what he was doing: circumventing the law. To achieve this required that he suborn others.

Some proved eager to oblige, others started out with integrity but ended up thoroughly polluted. It requires a cunning instinct to know who might be induced, what weakness can be preyed upon. Such predatory instincts are firmly grounded in contempt for others. That too is contagious. Contempt for the public was grimly evident in the comic video presented by Zuma’s perspiring police minister to prove that the swimming pool at his boss’s Nkandla homestead was actually a “fire pool”.

The moral fungus spread to all state institutions, perverting their functioning. Even if all the stolen cash were returned there remains a colossal cost to be counted. Maybe top of his charge sheet should be the roll-call of those Zuma contaminated, including vulnerable women and wives, callously abandoned once their use had expired.

Rampant contempt for everything and everyone implies a personal flaw, driven ultimately by the demon of self-contempt. One crucial aspect that has gone largely unremarked is that Zuma abased himself to a clan of racists. At the Gupta family’s 2013 wedding jamboree at Sun City (financed by millions from a Free State poverty alleviation scheme) leaked e-mails revealed that they had requested only white staff. Questioned again, the organising company replied, “All staff are white!” On the day, in fact, there were some black waiters — and the Guptas’ security squad ordered them to wash before they could approach wedding guests.

That’s not the only time the clan insisted on a “whites only” policy. It suggests the contempt the Guptas must have felt for a mercenary president who virtually let them run the country. Neither the charming Jacob nor his amiable son Duduzane displayed much self-respect in allowing themselves to be crudely manipulated by a cynical gang with declared black antipathies. There’s nothing remotely traditionalist about that. It was a Faustian bargain: pride corroded and dissolved by greed.

Rather than platitudes about African culture and Zuma’s “feudalism”, we might usefully glance back closer to feudal times and remember that personal quirks can be timeless and universal. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI (part 3), Gloucester (later Richard III) memorably murmurs, “Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile.”

• Rostron is a journalist and author.

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