A Musical Man of the People
Business Day Weekender
KARIMA BROWN comes face to face with ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma and finds a man who has stayed true to his humble origins
JACOB Zuma’s big smile, belly laugh and singsong antics at public gatherings, where he often leads his supporters in belting out Umshini wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun), is an image frozen in the minds of many. His dance is energetic, vigorous, nothing like the gentle Madiba shuffle.
But the Umshini wam song, the subject of endless deconstruction by the chattering classes and feminist lobby groups, is the war cry of the Zuma political machine. It is an essential ingredient for working the crowds as the African National Congress (ANC) deputy president continues his efforts to become president of the party.
So it is hardly surprising that entering his house in Forest Town, Johannesburg, one is greeted by the sound of music. Only this time Zuma is not doing the singing. He is listening to Maskande artist Vusi Ximba, and talking animatedly on the phone.
In front of him are legal papers, no doubt to do with the National Prosecuting Authority’s nearly decade-long probe into his affairs.
A quick peak at the CDs stacked neatly next to the ghetto blaster (no slick state-of-the-art surround sound system for our man of the people) reveals that he also enjoys the Soul Brothers, and the sounds of Thokozani Langa. Zuma candidly confesses he enjoys listening to music.
“ I love all music,” he says. But there is no Bach, Moz art or even the favourite of the nouveau riche, Luciano Pavarotti.
The absence of any serious electronics is a far cry from his more opulent situation when he was SA’s number two, and is a fitting metaphor for Zuma’s changed political fortunes. It also allows a rare glimpse into the contradictions that make up the man.
He lives in an expensive area — the mink and manure suburb of Forest Town. Yet the decor is decidedly low key, even tacky by some standards. A colleague said jokingly after seeing the house’s interior: “Just because you are a politician doesn’t mean you have style.” My sentiments exactly.
Ranjeni Munu samy, a former Sunday Times journalist and close personal aide to the ANC deputy president, says with Zuma there is no pretence. “What you see is what you get”.
She describes him as a larger-than-life, colourful man who genuinely likes people and takes a deep interest in the lives of those whose paths cross his. “I have covered politics extensively and have often battled to find the person behind the politician, but with Baba, it’s different. He genuinely likes people, and has this ability to remember little details about their lives,” she says.
And the masses love it — much to the chagrin of the party elite, who frown on Zuma’s “common” streak. After all, the ANC has a fine tradition of educated, well-spoken and well-heeled leaders stretching back decades. Zuma’s messy personal life, his parlous financial affairs, his many wives, and his 18 children cause deep embarrassment for the party elite.
For them, his ascendancy spells disaster, and should be avoided at all costs.
Unlike other ANC luminaries, Zuma lineage’s reveals no missionary education, nor the scholarly tradition of Lovedale College, the alma mater of many ANC leaders. Zuma has no formal education and comes from poor and working class stock in KwaZulu-Natal. His passion for education is obvious.
“ It should be a crime for any child not to be in school,” he says. His own lack of formal education has turned him into a strong advocate of adult education.
His political backers like to make much of his humble beginnings, and say it makes him a “friend of the workers and the poor”. At a recent birthday bash in Durban, his daughters regaled well -wishers with anecdotes of how they still help their father with English. Duduzile, Zuma’s daughter, had the crowd in stitches when she told them that her father, a self-confessed chocoholic, always referred to his favourite candy bar as “barone”.
But despite his impoverished past, Zuma is a skilled politician who rose quickly through the ranks of the ANC. The high point of his political career was as deputy president of SA in June 1999, a post from which he was removed by President Thabo Mbeki in a watershed moment in 2005. His dismissal came after the conviction of Zuma’s financial adviser Shabir Shaik on counts of fraud and corruption.
One of Zuma’s advisers at the time, Siyabonga Mcetwya, who remains part of his inner circle, says that fateful day is still etched in his memory.
“It was a very difficult moment for us all. What stands out for me was our flight to Cape Town on that day when we all knew what was about to happen. The mood was sombre, but JZ was jovial. He told us that in revolutions we must expect anything. When we reached his office he called us all in, and we wrote his speech. It was such a difficult thing. Then we went through the motions, we watched the whole thing on television and at 3.30pm he said ‘I am ready to face the media’.
“You know he has this habit of clearing his throat when he is nervous, and I noticed as he was walking towards the media, he was doing it more frequently, the man was deeply hurt, but he pulled himself together and faced the press,” says Mcetwya.
Zuma’s loyalty to his comrades and friends is described by those closest to him as a strength, but his detractors say it’s precisely this quality that has seen Zuma embroiled in scraps and run-ins with the law.
“Zuma’s first loyalty is to the ANC. Yes, there are some around him who want to use him for their own purposes — he knows this. But he is very clear about what he wants too. He is always thinking about the big picture, while he smiles and laughs with everyone, ” Mcetwya says.
According to those in his inner circle, Zuma’s patience is legendary. It is this quality that saw him broker the peace between the warring ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party factions at the height of the bloody war in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990 s. It is also the trait that enabled him to broker peace in Burundi, and secure the pullout by Rwandan forces from eastern Congo, which ultimately led to a breakthrough in the peace talks in the Great Lakes region, Mcetwya says.
“ When he was deputy president of SA we spent 21 days straight having talks between Paul Kagame and Joseph Kabila. Zuma convinced Kagame that it was in his interests to withdraw, and pledged South African presence as a guarantee. That’s how a deal was eventually brokered that allowed the process to move forward,” he says.
When Zuma was axed from the cabinet, his bodyguards wept openly. But many also rejoiced. Zuma found himself shunned for fear of incurring the wrath of the en vogue elite, while others called him privately to show their solidarity. But Zuma’s troubles were far from over. His rape trial tested the loyalty of even his closest allies, and many wrote him off.
He endured, despite damaging remarks over HIV/AIDS and gay rights. “I made a mistake and I did not intend to offend anyone, that’s why I apologised,” he says.
After his acquittal on the rape charges, Zuma turned his attention to his power base. He clawed his way back onto the scene, and has done battle with anyone, including Mbeki, for nothing less than the top job in the ANC. He could still be catapulted back to the pinnacle of political power.
With acknowledgements to Karima Brown and Business Day.