Desperately seeking Zuma

I have to admit that I am one of those people who gets a frisson of delight when a senior counsel starts a sentence in court with the words: “Of course, it is trite law to point out that —”

This is of course a legalism, which really means: “Listen, you bunch of intellectual oafs. The legal basis of what we are discussing is as clear as daylight and I am only going over it again because you fellows simply don’t see it, do you?”

I don’t know why this oblique legal insult—which is up there among the legal insults along with “with all due respect”—fills me with such joy. I guess that, although a gentle soul, I might be a closet intellectual sadist.

At any rate, I suppose it is extremely trite to note that these past 18 months or so have been our “months of political biography”. Well, then, trite I shall have to be.

Last year came the magisterial and gorgeously written and thought-out Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser and the exhaustively researched and precise Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa by Padraig O’Malley. Then, earlier this year came Anthony Butler’s Cyril Ramaphosa—a really first-class biography, which in my view ought to have received more attention than it has—and now we have Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel by Pippa Green and my Zuma: A Biography.

Maharaj worked with his biographer, O’Malley, as did, to a greater or lesser extent, Manuel with Green. But Mbeki was mostly not available to Gevisser, as Gevisser tells us. It seems Mbeki stood well back from the “biographical process”. This was apparently both because it seemed the right thing to do (which it was)—let Gevisser do his work and find what he needed to find—and because Mbeki was then president and didn’t exactly have a lot of free time on his hands.

Ramaphosa, however, gave Butler a hard time. According to Butler, nothing positive—and that’s a euphemism—about the writing of his biography emanated from Ramaphosa, not until the process was close to completion, if at all.

What then about Zuma?

Obviously I did not want to write an “authorised” biography. It would have meant that my hands would have been unacceptably tied, because Zuma would have had sight of, and say over, what went into the book. And I had had enough trouble as it was, since 2004 or so, of being accused of being his spin doctor, his spokesperson, and the like.

There was also another “problem”, a threefold one. First, Zuma came to his “political maturity”, so to speak, as ANC chief of intelligence in exile in the late 1980s. Zuma is therefore by training—as well as temperament—unwilling to divulge any information.

Information, personal or not, is something that an intelligence person guards all the time.

Second, “the media” had not, certainly since 2004/5, exactly been kind to Zuma. In fact, some newspapers and electronic media had been palpably unkind, if not downright contemptuous. There were reasons for this, of course, but still Zuma was, understandably, not inclined to trust me, a journalist. Who knows what I might end up by saying or suggesting about him?

Third, without giving away too many of Zuma’s secrets, it seems that Zuma and some others around him had been toying with the idea of a Zuma biography being written and published.

But it was not, so to speak, part of their game plan, insofar as there was one, that such a book would be written by a non-ANC, 100% white boy, who was a working journalist to boot.

And yet, as I have written in the book, Zuma cooperated graciously and patiently—when he could. I write “when he could” because, after December 2007, when he was elected president of the ANC at Polokwane, Zuma’s availability was, as can be imagined, in short supply. And of course he was able to choose what he told me and it was up to me to filter and check that information.

But most of the information I needed was, because of his past reticence and because people had not paid him much attention in the past, not readily available either.

In short, writing an unauthorised biography about an essentially elusive person was not without its difficulties. But, if I might again be extremely trite, where’s the fun in life and work if there are no challenges?

Zuma: A Biography by Jeremy Gordin is published by Jonathan Ball



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