CHRIS ROPER: Inside the cult of the Nkandla tea party
Dudu Zuma-Sambudla is Jacob Zuma’s very own Twitter hagiographer. All who join the former president for tea at Nkandla are similarly cast as heroes and martyrs
In these trying pandemic times, I’ve been finding a lot of spiritual solace in the sayings of Jacob Zuma’s daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla. Well, not sayings, exactly. Tweets. And not spiritual solace as such, more like that feeling of existential dread you get when you realise that there is no meaning in the world and everything is pointless.
Jean-Paul Sartre, that poster boy for existentialism, called this "nausea" — the feeling you get when you realise that everything is irrational, contingent and unpredictable, and that everything you thought you knew about your existence in the world is a lie.
For example, what is one to make of this nugget of wisdom? "Let the enemy agents know that Nkandla is a National Key Point and A University of Life. Ophuza kulomthombo wamanzi, angeke aphinde ome. God Bless Nkandla so we continue to drink from This Fountain of Life of President JG Zuma." (Zuma 17:53, 6/21)
Who are the enemy agents? The Zondo commission? What is the connection between a national key point and a university of life? Are both connected by a mystical ley line tracing a direct spiritual thread to Dubai via Saxonwold?
And what to make of the Bible verse (John 4:14, if I’m not mistaken): "But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a firepool of water springing up into everlasting life."
Could this be a coded reference to the river of patronage that flowed from Zuma’s beneficence over the years?
The implied threat of "God Bless Nkandla so we continue to drink from This Fountain of Life of President JG Zuma" is pretty clear: if you aren’t fighting in the Nkandla tea party camp, the river of corruption will run dry for you.
It’s all very biblical, as befits the church of Zuma. In Zuma 12:31, 4/21, Zuma-Sambudla reminds us of the former president’s incipient holiness: "Fun Fact: My father wanted to be a Pastor before he joined the struggle. Thank you to the Church of the Holy Ghost for Inviting my Father President JG Zuma. SA needs Prayer amidst the Covid-19 Pandemic (scam). The Army of God has been unleashed. Askari Bhasobha."
A cursory scan of this might miss the casual parenthetic revelation that the Covid-19 pandemic is a scam, which is why the Gospel According to Nkandla benefits from a close reading.
Reading the sayings of Zuma-Sambudla, I am irresistibly reminded of the famous parable by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE). "Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."
Zuma-Sambudla’s tweets give one that same feeling of cognitive dissonance.
Am I a functioning citizen in a constitutional democracy, conscious only of my happiness as a citizen in a constitutional democracy, or am I member of a corrupt religious cult dreaming that I am a member of a constitutional democracy?
In his 1957 work, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger described cognitive dissonance as a psychological distress that occurs when someone holds contradictory beliefs or values, and participates in an action that clashes with one of them.
When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for themElliot Aronson and Carol Tavris
"According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person’s belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein they try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort."
One of the contributing triggers to this theory was Festinger’s observation of a millenarian cult whose leader reported receiving messages from aliens telling her that the world would end in a great flood on a specific date. She attracted followers who abandoned their normal life, instead spending their time getting ready to leave on a flying saucer that was coming to rescue them.
According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica: "The believers shunned publicity while they awaited the flying saucer and the flood. But when the prophecy was disconfirmed, almost immediately the previously most-committed group members made calls to newspapers, sought out interviews, and started actively proselytising."
Festinger understood this sudden desire for publicity as the cult members seeking to enlist social support for their belief, so as to lessen the pain of its disconfirmation.
Writing for The Atlantic magazine, social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris tell us that "few people fully appreciate the mechanism’s enormous motivational power — and the lengths people go to in order to reduce its discomfort. For example, when people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties."
It’s tempting to believe that this is what is driving the frankly insane Nkandla tea parties, where members of the Zuma state capture cult keep rocking up to drink tea in a very public manner, forcing us to bear witness to their doubling down of allegiance to their stuttering system of corruption.
There’s a ritual quality to the tea parties. They even have their own hashtag, #NkandlaTea, and their own litany.
Here, Zuma-Sambudla recites it for us.
"Daddy: my girl, I am about to have tea!
"Me: yes Dad. Please go ahead.
"Daddy: I mean, which group is joining me for tea today, wanna start early.
"Me: Checking if there is sugar and milk.
"Daddy: don’t worry, as long as MaKhumalo is here, she will make a plan!
"#NkandlaTea." (Zuma 6:48, 6/21)
The tea parties gesture to the same ritual effect as the Catholic sacrament of transubstantiation. This is highlighted by a picture of the EFF’s Julius Malema raising a teacup alongside Zuma, captioned: "Good morning SA. How do you like your tea? We like it BLACK! and STRONG! Black IS King." (Zuma 9:40, 6/21)
When you partake of Zuma’s tea, you partake of his body and blood, and you become Zuma.
Even without the actual sipping of the tea, you can become one with Zuma. So though police minister Bheki Cele didn’t publicly drink the tea, merely turning up is an indication of whose side he is on, as Zuma 13:48, 18/21 tells us. "No #NkandlaTea was served but great conversations and laughs were shared among Comrades, one of them being, should an arrest warrant be issued, it is the Minster that would come and fetch President JG Zuma [crying with laughter emoji]."
The cognitive dissonance that the Zuma cultists are experiencing means they have to paint all supplicants at the altar as heroes or martyrs.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng, leader of the African Content Movement and the man who destroyed the SABC, is painted as a martyr to radical economic transformation. "Hallmark of today’s tea with President JG Zuma. Hlaodi Motsoaneng, vilified4implementation of 90% Local content in Favour of SA Artists. A visionary who led SABC, paid salaries&never retrenched anyone. 2day SABC Employees r shown flames. Thank you Hlaodi4Putting SA first. We miss u at SABC." (Zuma 22:36, 5/21)
There’s a lot going on in that particular verse, but one thing worth pointing out is the nod to the xenophobic Put South Africans First movement.
As with every religious text, a close examination of Zuma-Sambudla’s holy writ reveals the populist tropes dropped in to mobilise true believers. So you’ll also find anti-Semitism, when Zuma-Sambudla writes a response to someone who offers to assist Zuma "as a material witness to Jews in control of Thuli Madonsela and [the SA judiciary]", saying "I would like to invite you for #NkandlaTea. I saw your Tweet and your message has been conveyed. President JG Zuma office is going to arrange a meeting with you, I will personally get in touch with you to get your details." (Zuma 10:00, 21,21)
We have a choice here, as South Africans. Do we choose to believe the lies and propaganda pushed by the charlatans and liars writing the gospel according to Zuma, or do we acknowledge that the ANC under Zuma betrayed every single person in our country?
Can we live with the cognitive dissonance engendered by the fact that the ruling party is also the looting party, or will this fatally destroy our idea of what a democracy should be?
Are we going to double down and become Zuma cultists? Or are we going to run into the arms of parties that are just annoying fleas biting the body politic, rather than sucking it dry like the vampires of the ANC?
The hard choice, of course, is choosing to fight the dissonance, and persevere with trying to fix the system that Zuma and his ministry of corruption have done their damnedest to render meaningless.
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