Understanding Jacob Zuma
Let me start this long and convoluted story from my private space and then gradually take you to the public sphere where matters like this get better treatment. Will you believe that in my living room there are two big posters; one made of cotton and the other printed on paper? It is the one made of cotton that is of interest to me in this reflection about Mr. Jacob Zuma, his country and also about the Poetry Festival I can now say I have attended twice. I must not let this narrative run ahead of itself so let me bring you into how I came about a Zuma memento. You see, I bought the big Jacob Zuma poster in 2008 when I first visited Durban. The very few guests I have entertained in my apartment never fail to ask me why I have Jacob Zuma’s image and not that of Mandela on my wall. There are days I would tell a lie that Zuma represents everything I am not. He has scores of children and wives too. There are other days I would just tell the truth that I saw the cloth-poster somewhere in Durban and the woman selling it appealed to something inside of me that I could not fathom. Well the big clothe-poster adorns my wall till today and sometimes his piercing eyes and shinning pate disturbs my peace and I want to ask who this Zuma man is.
Jacob Zuma image: gcis.gov.za
Till date, no thanks to the media, I still do not understand who this man is. Let me pull you along to a snap-shot of my mind five years ago after I returned from South Africa. As part of my travelogue then I wrote these lines:
“As at the time I visited toward the end of September  and early October, the Mbeki matter was still brewing in the political pot and I was interested in how the people perceive of the matter. Who is this Zuma and what is his place in the scheme of things? Zuma like Nigeria’s Zuma rock, rolls within the hearts of the people not on their paths. They think he is down to earth and reflects their aspirations. “Is he corrupt?” The people say “leave that matter alone”, they still love him all the same.
One former Ambassador in the company of Pat, Maise, Ntuthuko, the theatre director and Ndikhoxaba, an artist who lived for over thirty years in America, tried to paint for me a vivid picture of how Zuma is loved in his own country. It was an ad hoc “meet my people” kind of gathering put together by Pat (who I met just by chance at the hotel). The Ambassador, who did most of the speaking, informed me that if Zuma walked into the Royal hotel where we were, that everyone would jump on their feet to greet him, hug him and shower him with affection not sparing a moment’s thought for the usual stern-looking security details who are always a part of his entourage every time a politician of his stature moves around. That coming from a former Ambassador, my instinct as a media studies scholar warns that I should not take it hook, line, and sinker (pardon the cliché). I was left to ponder if one can safely deduce then that Comrade Thabo Mbeki does not hold the key to the hearts of his comrades anymore? Listening to this group of South Africans talk so passionately about their country and the political elite raised old questions in me.”
I would not bore you with those old questions but fast forward to 2013; I put the question to a friend of mine. Let us just call her painter pat (not real name). I asked her who she thinks this man Zuma is. I wish I could spend more time telling you about painter pat and regale you with anecdotes from her past. I resist that temptation and instead serve you her words unedited. She says it as it is and I leave you to judge if I am making stuff up.
“[Zuma] was the only cadre who could manage the mutinies that were taking place in the ANC detention centres in Namibia during the struggle – he is more of a doer than a talker. You want to know more, I think he is entitled to his home in Nkandla. Treasury regulations were bent for Mandela, why not for him as well? As for Thabo Mbeki, he had his own airplane to travel. Things are not in perspective as the opposition is obsessed with money as a ‘technicist’ tool. I also personally find the cartoons and attacks on his personhood undignified. Clearly, there is a struggle going on within the ANC. Zuma is a polygamist and he lives near the sacred Nkandla forest – there is a combination of factors here which has to do with tradition, legacy as well as his proprietorial role in local traditions. I do not say this publicly, this is my private opinion.”
Yes I agree her views are not exactly politically correct ones and may make a few people uncomfortable depending on which side of the political spectrum they lean at present. As the business of constructing the perceptions of ‘others’ go; there should be differing opinions and whose view do I present if not our own Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer prize winner who describes himself as “a recovering Nigerian.” He argues in a City Press article he wrote recently that “How come we went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma in 10 years flat, like a racing car in reverse? Why is it that Mandela built himself a modest country home, fashioned after his prison bungalow to maintain a measure of familiarity, and with his own money, while Zuma spent more than R208 million in public funds erecting a village compound to his own ego? A veritable Basilica of Yamoussoukro in the poverty-stricken hills of Nkandla in Zululand?”
I guess presenting you with these views can only complicate a simple matter. Don’t we all know that life and the reading of the past can never be that straight forward? So indulge me to go back to my painter Pat and her explosive views. Well by now you should know that I am not one to pass on what Mr. Obama would call a “teachable moment” so I pressed her to tell me more; and yes she opened up the flood gates of her memory.
“[Zuma] is a well-trained cadre and one of the last of the ANC. It may be a rift between the Xhosa and Zulu (which goes back for centuries) but I can also see a faction developing from Johannesburg which is using the media and money to play him up as a village idiot – this he will do as he has always supported the rural aspect of culture. He is less sinister than Mbeki – I also like Thabo Mbeki but, as an intellectual, he forgot the realities on the ground. Zuma attracts the populace as a ‘home boy’ whereas Thabo’s family history and exile attracts intellectual activists. With this come race, class and culture. Zuma is liked by Zulus, Islamists, Hindus, and so called coloured people. He is not an intellectual, but also not a nationalist or populist – he will be hurt by his intellectual cadre, Blade Nzimande, who is disrupting the Labour movement in favour of a humanities Higher Education agenda – too early for this. The divide between rich and poor is too big and Blade, although bright, wants to turn the nation into labourers. Zuma, in many ways, is a traditionalist with a high Africanist agenda for Africa. If he cannot be an African in his own country, how the hell can he inspire and support fellow African leaders? He is very ANC though and it is sad to see this rift developing. But he has been through this before, during exile, and he should not be underestimated”
If there was any underestimation on my part it would be how I underestimated my own local knowledge about South African politics. To understand South African politics or politics anywhere one must be ready to follow the stream of new names and strange situations which hardly make it to the public sphere. Where else would I go search for Blade Nzimande if not the Internet and as you guessed there is a lorry-load of information on him. Since he is not a main character in this story I shall not be tempted to CAP (aka copy and paste) what the Internet has about, or holds against him. If you go check, you will discover he is a fifty five year old man who “has been Minister for Higher Education and Training since 2009. He has been the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party since 1998.” I think these two positions can help us understand how this man is a binary opposite to Zuma. Unfortunately this story must move on. Were it not for my love for you my readers, I would have raised more questions about Zuma’s life in Namibia, how one man can disrupt the labor movement. Could his coming “out strongly against proposals for nationalisation at the COSATU conference in June 2011, stating that it is not ‘inherently progressive’ as it depended on which class interests were being advanced” be what painter Pat was referring to? As a parting shot let me leave this issue for now with what painter pat said about Mbeki and which another mutual friend commented upon. “Thabo Mbeki, it seems, will never be forgiven for his stand on HIV/Aids in South Africa, as much as he has apologized in the past. I call the Zuma regime an “inevitable outcome’.”
At the Poetry Africa Festival
So what do all these tell you about South Africa and if you were in my shoes, would any of these affect your expectation of a poetry festival? I confess with my right hand on my chest that my head is spinning right now as I try to reconstruct from memory details of my second visit to Durban for the 17th Poetry Africa Festival. I did not arrive to Durban directly this time around. I flew in from Orlando airport to Johannesburg and after three days I continued my journey to Cape Town. It was at Cape Town I saw what the Yoruba people will call atalata baba aruba, meaning I made for myself a little hell hole because I was trying to be frugal with my resources. I accepted a room in a multi-room house on Scott Street in which I would have died quietly but I am grateful I can tell this story myself. Please, if you ever decide to visit Cape Town for any reason, I beg you with all that is dear to you, avoid this offer. Yes, it was not as expensive as the Scalabrini Guest House which I eventually moved into, but you may pay the balance with your life. However, should you come out alive then be sure your creator still has need of you. Number 17 Scott Street was COLD and I had to put up with students, mainly from Europe and North America, who treated the place like they would never treat their own homes. I think I should say little about this accommodation so that I can be in a good space to share with you how I felt when I finally arrived in Durban. Like change is the most constant expectation in life; the organizers of the festival also changed their minds about travel reimbursement. Instead of the initial agreement to contribute to the cost of my air fare from America they finally settled to pay for the local travel from Cape Town to Durban. Who was I to quarrel about such pecuniary details? I was already feeling like a king that I would fly out of Cape Town to the waiting hands of the organizers of Poetry Africa Festival. The delay of the flight for two hours was not going to dampen my anticipation. I was already composing my letter to Durban.
Dear Durban, I started writing at the airport in Cape Town, I do not know you and the last time I visited you were too shy to show me the real you. I still recall the visits to schools and the pleasant evening boat ride, and the sumptuous breakfast we were served in Royal Hotel. I hope, Durban, you will outperform yourself this time. Please if you would not, just let me have the same treatment I had in 2008. Signed yours truly. I ran out of inspiration about what to write to Durban just in time to board the plane.
Yes Durban did outperform herself in many ways. I arrived this time, after what looked like an endless ride on very smooth roads, at Belaire Suites Hotel on Snell Parade, North Beach, a place the owners say is “a great base from which to explore this vibrant city.” How can I disagree with such a statement? I just must count myself unlucky that I was thrown into a room that had a dysfunctional shower and from which I could not see the water front. I must give credit to the ladies in the front office who swung into action after my complaints. I was moved to the 7th floor and it was from there that the days started to move faster than I wished. Do you really want me to tell you what happened from day to day or a quick summary will quench your curiosity?
To recount in some details how our days were filled would require too much precious space to paint a real good picture for you all, but I shall attempt to do what looks impossible right now. It is not unusual for organizers to want to maximize the presence of such a diverse group as they had on their hands. So, they made sure that our days were spent in schools within the communities. I will not blame them that they ensured all socio-economic classes were well represented. In my case I visited – in the company of other participants – the Centre for African Literature Studies (CALS) Library at the UKZN Pietermaritzburg campus, and when that was over, the next port of call was the Durban University of Technology in the company of a most wonderful, multi-talented sister Malika Ndlovu and brother Kobus Moolman. We were assigned to speak to students of journalism on the issue of “Poets in the media.” What a day that was. If we had an interesting day with the few students who showed up, the visit to Lindeni Arts Center in one of the Townships gave us another insight into the spatial organization of Durban and how those at the margins of existence still have time for creative endeavors. This time around, Sister Sabitha TP and a very well-known spoken word artist, kabomo Vilakazi were the poets I shared that slot with. I came away believing that if you threw a stone in Durban it will most likely land on a published poet/writer. Though we read two poems each to those in attendance, it was what they gave to us in return that redefined that day. The poems were performed either in English or in various indigenous languages that sounded more like music to the ears of this Yoruba man. To torture me further, no one cared to translate what was expressed in the works. If I could not connect with the meaning of the words, the emotions conveyed made up for my loss.
Workshop at KweSethu High School
On the third day of the festival, things moved at such a fast and furious speed, I had to activate my autopilot mode. The pleasures of the day had put so much pressure on the nights that the allotted eight hours of rest felt less. I knew I had nothing else to lose, so when it was time to visit another school I just sort of tagged along with the four students of the University of Johannesburg. The agenda for that day was creative writing workshop at KweSethu High School on Zulu Road Kwa Mashu. What can one say about this school brimming with raw talents? They were ready for us and I dare say we too were mentally ready for them. The four students of the University of Johannesburg led the workshop while I snapped away; observing the body language of these budding performers, listening to sounds that said little to me, and taking in non-verbal cues that may deliver secret meanings when all lights were out. During the final performance by the High schools students, their performance reminded me of the captivating performances of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that all-male choral group from South Africa that sang in the vocal styles of isicathamiya and mbube. A great pity that I had no recording devise to capture the sounds but good enough I have copies of some of the on-the-spot poems the students created and images of moments my camera could not resist will be my horse into the groove of time and memory.
Just in case you have been wondering what my role was during the festival, I can tell you that I was allowed about 20 minutes to perform/sing/dance and do whatever I was moved to do. I wanted that African feel to my appearance, so I turned to what is now becoming my stage attire but this time without the Abeti Aja cap. It was a night everyone got applause and I was not left out. Listening to the audio tape recording I made during the show, I sound so off key I am not sure I will share it with any living soul. I can now understand why none of the South African ladies asked for my contact details after the show. Was it really that bad?
Another question I may never find an answer to is how come I did not notice any other Nigerian at the Sneddon Theater that night? Well, I am happy to report that Nigeria did not a get a bad rap this time compared to 2008 when I first graced the same stage. This time Nigeria has Fela Anikulapo Kuti to thank and Ken Saro Wiwa (who by the way appeared to be adored and almost lionized by two Indian poets). Then I thank all the Nollywood Warriors who toil by day and by night to include perspectives of Nigeria in the minds of South Africans. Should I not pay respect to this land of creative minds? They have learned to encode their hurt into words and beautiful expressions. The poets are as comfortable in the local languages as they are in English. The struggle for them has shifted from the streets to the stage. Nothing is sacrosanct…I mean no issue is a no-go area. I was lucky to have my pictures taken by Natalia Molebatsi who happens to be a very good friend of our own culture activist, Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo.
As it is written, if a show has a Genesis it must have its Revelation and this poetry festival was no exception. In the beginning we were strangers and the words that linked us together dissolved our strangeness as words poured forth without hindrance. The revelation for me will remain papa Barnabe Laye, a medical Doctor who lives in France but was brought up in Benin Republic. He speaks Yoruba and French with an effortless ease. He brought to the stage a new lease of life that is rarely seen on stage.
In my case the dance steps I tried may remain with most of the participants for long. When it was time to go, the city of Durban knew that we came and left with memories of places, of people and of many possibilities. If Durban were a woman, won’t I have paid her dowry by now, on my way to getting married to a city of my imagination? A city of many colors under the sun, I will yet sing a new song to Durban and to the department of Creative Arts of the KwaZulu Natal University. Who else would I choose to be the best man at the wedding of a human being with a city if not Brother Jacob Zuma, a man I will give anything to understand and take anything from city dwellers, people of the townships, and immigrants like me who are found everywhere like ants going after sugar.
– Poetry Africa images courtesy…