Foreign Press Fails at Fair Comment
Zuma's trial prompts some strange analysis
The divisions exposed by the trial of former deputy president Jacob Zuma have also been seen as a template for many other fractures in our society. But there's a large element of illusionism too.
Just because he can sing and dance at street demonstrations, for example, doesn't prove Zuma is a socialist. It simply means that, as a populist, people tend to see in him what they want. They project on to him their own hopes or fears.
The same can be said of foreign press coverage of Jacob Zuma, though often with a more malignant undercurrent. Our young democracy is being sorely tested and deep fissures in society have been exposed, yet the rule of law has unmistakably prevailed.
However, some media comment in Europe and the US appears to go far beyond describing and analysing what Zuma has or hasn't done, into wild flights of bizarre and biased generalisation.
It is as though South Africa covered the revelations of extra-marital shenanigans by British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, say, as verification that all Labour Party males were oafs who couldn't keep their pants on, or that the current British "cash-for-titles" scandal confirmed an inherent duplicity in the British people.
The conservative Daily Telegraph, hardly surprisingly, said that the trial had revealed the "thuggishly macho face of the ANC".
In the liberal Guardian, rather more surprisingly, the South African-born novelist Christopher Hope claimed that the trial had left South Africa "in the dock".
He declared, "violence in South Africa is at the heart of this case and violence is so pervasive, and so fundamental to the way people react to each other, that I sometimes think that hitting, shooting or raping are the terrifying means by which South Africans stay in touch".
He adds, in case we missed the point: "The only way they stay in touch."
This is hysterical gibberish. Yet there is a definite market in Britain for such frenzied and apocalyptic horror, which sounds distinctly like prejudice.
In the past, the majority of papers in Britain supported the apartheid government, and denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. It hasn't taken long for them to revert to unpleasant habits.
The Daily Mail and Daily Express have been extremely hostile to post-apartheid South Africa and, vituperatively, to Mandela in particular, with the Daily Express even carrying stories with such headlines as: "How the White Tribe Suffers under Mandela".
The Daily Mail also ran a frenzied double-page feature a few years ago claiming that "beggars and goats have set up home in the marble foyers of derelict banks. South Africa today has become a nation on the edge of self-destruction".
When that particular correspondent next returned to South Africa, it was to bring his wife on holiday.
More upmarket, but as slack with facts, is RW Johnson, purveyor of tosh to London's Sunday Times and The Spectator. Two years ago Johnson produced a book, South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation, which is larded with his trademark: sensational, even hair-raising, unsubstantiated allegations.
In his book he even claimed that Mandela was a powerless puppet president, supinely obeying orders. After Thabo Mbeki defeated Cyril Ramaphosa for the post of deputy president, Johnson declared explicitly: "Mandela thereafter did pretty much whatever Mbeki said."
Here, if true, was a world scoop - without one shred of evidence. "The ANC exiles exercised complete control over his actions and speeches, and from the outset it was not Mandela, but Thabo Mbeki who chaired the cabinet, ran the government and consolidated his position by judicious use of patronage.
"Had ordinary South Africans known that Mandela was so disempowered that he had often wandered out of cabinet meetings long before they ended, they would have been scandalised."
Some of Johnson's best flam appears in The London Review of Books, where he claimed South Africans, as under apartheid, were scared to speak freely on the phone - this in 1996, only two years after our first supposedly democratic elections. (But by then, as Johnson later claimed, President Mandela was a sort of muzzled Prisoner of Zenda.)
He wrote: "They are scared but, since it's out of order to admit there might be some reason for this, they are scared to say they are scared."
Here are all the ingredients of a classic smear: no proof, followed by a crafty get-out clause. It would be pure conspiracy theory, of course, to suggest people might not want to talk to such a tripe writer, and that he mistook this aversion as proof of an apartheid-style proto-police state.
Johnson's polemic sometimes soars to a sort of "magic realism". He imagines the worst; then, lo, he believes his lurid imaginings - and records them, to the delight of nostalgic colonials both here and in Britain.
Indeed, Johnson has several times, even in the pages of the New Statesman, argued the need for a recolonisation of Africa.
In The Guardian last week, Hope said that in many ways he found the new South Africa stranger than the old. That may be, of course, because he has not lived here for many years.
It may also be that he doesn't understand us, or feels uncomfortable. Even so, it is one thing to report, analyse or criticise, and quite another to fantasise.
That is the model of an old and lingering Imperial anthropology: taking the misdemeanours of one man and embroidering them into the sins of an entire nation.
So, yes: the Jacob Zuma debacle has thrown up many nasty truths: among them, it seems, is a resurgence of old-fashioned bile in the colonial-minded British press.
Rostron is a freelance writer.
With acknowledgement to Bryan Rostron and Cape Times.