Jacob Zuma: The what but not the why
Adriaan Basson, an assistant editor of City Press and author of Finish & Klaar: Selebi's Fall from the Interpol to the Underworld (most of which I read when it was published in 2010), has just had published Zuma Exposed* (322 pages).
It's published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and, if I am not mistaken, will have its Johannesburg launch at Exclusive Books Hyde Park on Monday evening.
An editor of mine at the Sunday Independent, Andrew Walker, forbade me, on pain of death, or a facsimile thereof, ever to refer to a report, book or idea as "important". He argued, as George Orwell would have done, that "important" is so relative and imprecise a term as to mean nothing.
Nonetheless, I would argue that Zuma Exposed is an important (and welcome) book. It's a major contribution, I believe, to contemporary Seffrican politics and history, to the vexed subject of JG Zuma, and to the field of investigative journalism.
I have been looking forward to this book ever since I first heard about it and, having just read it, I am not disappointed. Despite (in my view) a few oddly-edited sentences, it is also a lucid and easy read. So I recommend Zuma Exposed to those interested, but also to those only vaguely interested, in any of the above subjects.
Jonathan Ball (the person) dislikes, as much as an orthodox Jew dislikes pork, to have his books connected with "Christmas stocking fillers" and concepts of that sort. Still, Christmas is almost upon us and if you are in need of a gift for someone ...you know what to do. It set me back R216.00.
But, obviously, nihil perfectum nisi Deus, nothing is perfect except God, and I do have some "concerns" about the book, which I trust will be received in the spirit in which they are offered: constructively.
Basson makes it clear that this book is not a biography. "What I was interested in were those things that wouldn't make his official biography or hagiography. This is a book about Zuma's dark side (p 4)." (As far as I know, there is no official biography, other than an ANC one on the Net, and, also as far as I know, there is no hagiography either. Is this then a swipe at my biography of Zuma? ... I don't know. ... No matter; though my shoulders are old and bloody, they are still unbowed.)
On page 9, Basson adds in the same vein: "This book is not an objective assessment of everything Zuma has done since becoming president in 2009. It is also not a biography. I am an investigative journalist, interested only in the truth [my emphasis]."
Without wanting to be at all facetious or sophistical, I take it we all know the famous question asked at John 18:38 in the King James Bible: "Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?" ... Because the difficulty is that defining "truth" is notoriously, perhaps impossibly, difficult. Therefore claiming that you (above all) know what it is can get you into trouble.
At this point, if he were here sitting beside me, Basson might well ask: "What in heaven's name are you banging on about? This book is about the facts of legal evidence related to Schabir Shaik, cabinet appointments, the charges that were dropped against Zuma, his major decisions, the so-called spy tapes (and their connection with Jackie Selebi and Richard Mdluli - which is extremely interesting), Zuma's and his family's business interests, the appallingly tragic story of Khulubuse "Khula" Zuma and Aurora, the Gupta family, Zumaville, Zuma's child with Sonono Khoza, the Menzi Simelane saga, the Bheki Cele, Richard Mdluli and Willem Heath appointments, other incidents, other legal judgments, the Spear painting episode, and so on and so forth.
"All of these ‘events'," Basson might continue, "or rather my renditions of these ‘events', deal with facts, in some cases ones uncovered by me or by colleagues (investigative journalism). These are the facts unencumbered by ‘the bullshit and spin that South African journalists [and presumably members of the public] are increasingly being fed' (p 9).
"That's what I mean by the truth - not anything metaphysical or fancy-shmancy," Basson might say.
Fair enough. But what I would argue is that, while the truth doesn't necessarily require a metaphysical or intangible quality, itdoes need what I would call texture, or background, or context, or "a second dimension" - or just plain, good-old "explanation".
By this, I mean as follows. It's all very well to say as follows, okay, this guy Zuma is a classic avaricious putz. Look at just one sector of his life: the driving, apparently insatiable need for money. In this connection, look at what he did on behalf of Shaik. Look at the other charges that were dropped against him as a result of the spy tapes. Look at what his family has gotten into in terms of making boodle; and look at how his power as president has been misused to enable his family to do those things.
Again, fair enough. But if you don't tell - or at least try to understand, to whatever extent - why it is that Zuma might be so avaricious; if you don't have an awareness of, for example, the dire poverty from which Zuma comes, or of the economically miserable days passed year after year by those in exile, or of what Zuma might have felt in the mid-nineties when all those around him had three cell phones and luxurious motor vehicles and gorgeous suits and he realised that he simply didn't have the skills to achieve that sort of material welfare ...if you don't think about how people such as Zuma think money is to be made, what the mechanism in the new Seffrica should be (i.e. you "use" your friends and family, and vice-versa)... if you don't have an awareness of that (other) dimension of Zuma's life, if you don't indicate this other dimension to your reader, well then you have a hole in your bucket, don't you?
In his 1964 "Talk to Harlem Schoolteachers," James Baldwin said: "I would try to show [a Harlem schoolchild] that one has not lerarned anything about Castro when one says [only], ‘He is a Communist.' This is a way of not learning something about Castro, something about Cuba, something, in fact, about the world." Baldwin was saying, in other words, that life has more than one dimension.
Similarly, though Basson keeps everything grouped together under Zuma's umbrella (he has to do so - the book's calledZuma Exposed and Basson's thesis is to show the rottenness of Zuma), a great deal of this book is, as it must be, about the ANC qua organisation.
Now what emerges inter alia from Basson's investigations - and you don't need a PhD to see this, you just need to read Politicsweb, for example - is that the ANC has changed pretty radically (probably mostly for the worst) in the last 20 years.
Why? When? How? Unless you consider these questions, you end up holding Zuma responsible for everything. This is both risible and it is also to bestow on him powers and influences he simply doesn't have and is therefore insulting to a great many other people.
Let me be clear here. I think Basson is correct in the overt and covert conclusions he comes to in this book about Zuma. Since becoming president, Zuma has made many massive balls-ups - the effects of which we are all still going to feel - and his major focus in life would appear to have been gratification, protecting himself, and lining his own wallet and that of his family. And I do not think Zuma should be absolved; he has made choices, after all, and must live with them.
But I also do not think that Jacob Zuma is the devil incarnate or an emissary from the netherworld. I'm sorry to have to quote Karl Marx at a time when his vicar-general in Seffrica (Blade Nzimande) is saying particularly silly things. But Marx did, I think, hit the nail on the proverbial. As adapted by Eric Hobsbawm: "Men make their lives, but they do not make them just as they please, they do not make them under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past, and by the world around them."
And there has to be an awareness of this, I believe.
In summary, Zuma Exposed is a persuasive and fascinating catalogue of Zuma's dark side. But the book is a little shallow in that it fails to flesh out, for those who might care to know, why the beloved country seems these days to be going to hell in a hand basket.
Note to readers: (1) I am acquainted with Basson, and vice-versa. (2) My biography of Zuma (2008 & 2010, rev. ed.) was also published by JBP. (3) From 19 November I'll be employed by Media24, which also owns City Press, where Basson is assistant editor; and Media24 is in turn owned by Naspers, which also owns JBP.
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
With acknowledgement toJeremy Gordin and Politicsweb.