Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2004-10-15 Reporter: Rapule Tabane Reporter: Ferial Haffajee

Jacob the Underdog



Mail and Guardian

Date 2004-10-15


Rapule Tabane, Ferial Haffajee

Web Link


Part of the strategy of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), when it proclaimed that while there was a prima facie case of corruption against Deputy President Jacob Zuma it would not charge him, was that he would be tried in the court of public opinion.

And, on the face of it, that strategy should have worked, for Zuma's name is peppered throughout the charge sheet by which the state is seeking to indict his friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, on charges of corruption and fraud.

Those details have been in the public domain for almost two years now and they do not paint a pretty picture. Zuma allegedly used his office and name to try and forestall an investigation into the arms deal that involved Shaik and his brother, Chippy Shaik.

He oiled Shaik's young business, Nkobi Holdings, by peddling his influence for the company.

Zuma's personal finances were chaotic and required bail-outs totalling more than R1-million from Shaik. Enough, one would think, to make Zuma fall into public ill-repute. But no. A Markinor survey conducted earlier this year found that more than one in three South Africans believe that Zuma is innocent, while a higher number believe that the charges against Shaik are an effort to discredit the deputy president.

The survey should have come as no surprise for his popularity within the African National Congress and its communist and trade union allies has waxed while he has experienced possibly the most serious crisis of his political life.

At a Congress of South African Trade Unions congress last year, Zuma was roundly welcomed with the rousing song:

Wenzen uZuma we Ngcuka

Khaw'uphendule wenulawula

AmaScorpions khaw'utshele

Ukuth'uzuma wenzeni>

(You Ngcuka who is in charge of

the Scorpions tell us what Zuma

has done)

ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula this week told ThisDay newspaper that the Scorpions were "suicide bombers of the highest order".

Clearly, there is no unanimous viewpoint in South Africa about this case and while the media and some parts of the public are aghast at what Zuma is alleged to have done, the mass of public opinion is backing the perceived underdog.

This should have taken nobody by surprise for it is a quirk of the South African psyche to support the perceived underdog. All political heroes gone vrot, such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Tony Yengeni, Alan Boesak and Robert Mugabe, to name a few, have been let off in the court of public opinion.

What does this say about South Africans and their attitudes towards prominent anti-apartheid activists implicated in criminal activity? Or to despots ruining their countries? Can they never be wrong?

The answer, like most things in life, is found in history. The struggle forged bonds of solidarity that remain strong; it was a struggle of underdogs and it was a struggle against white supremacy. A united front was a vital part of winning power and discipline was always carried out internally.

Ten years into democracy, the institutions of justice are still perceived as foreign and white-controlled.

All these reasons are relevant in seeking to understand why the NPA's strategy went belly-up.

After Madikizela-Mandela was found guilty on fraud and theft charges by the Pretoria Magistrate's Court last year, a supporter said: "The accused is a black woman from Soweto and it does not come as a surprise she was found guilty. The prosecutor is white, the magistrate is also white and the court buildings also represent the Boer regime."

In a different case, involving "people's poet" Mzwakhe Mbuli, who was convicted on charges of armed robbery, virtually the same comments were repeated. An Mbuli website was opened and recorded about 20 000 hits as the conviction of a bank robber was read as an attack on an apartheid-era hero.

Former Pan Africanist Congress secretary general Thami ka Plaatjie: "There is probably a new political force where black people close rank when they feel under attack from instruments that remind them of the apartheid or colonial machinery.

"Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has significant support across the political spectrum in South Africa because he is perceived to be taking on a colonial power. In South Africa the Scorpions have come to be seen as an instrument that attacks successful blacks. It might not be true but it is a perception on the ground," added Ka Plaatjie.

And perception is often reality. The public support of Zuma provides a fascinating insight into the South African mind, but it also holds out significant challenges for the freedom years.

It is clear that the culture of struggle still has enormous influence and that ordinary people do not yet trust the institutions set up to protect their country and, by implication, their good.

With acknowledgements to Rapule Tabane, Ferial Haffajee and the Mail & Guardian.