Arts and Culture

By the gods, what now?

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

After President Jacob Zuma called on his ancestors to help secure his next term, Mpho Moshe Matheolane wonders how the gods would react to this.

President Jacob Zuma. (M&G)

So our beloved president has gone and appealed to the ancestors to help clear the road for him to retain his presidency of the ANC and secure another term in office as protector and promoter of the Constitution. Perfect. It is this very Constitution that ensures that President Zuma has the right to practice his culture. What a beautiful thing.

Of course there have been many who have been quick to jump onto the wagon of how this is just another example of the imminent doom that faces us as a country if (which is looking more and more like a "when") Zuma returns to office. I must admit, I am not sure to what extent I am on the side of the detractors and that of the sympathisers. As someone raised within the domain of cultural and traditional practices, doused heavily, with pity-wanting religion as accompaniment, I can’t say I am too surprised that Zuma made a plea to the ancestors.

Now I am not saying that by not being surprised that I endorse his actions but rather that for a majority of South Africans this is something understandable. At the same time however, where logic holds sway, one can only wonder what it is exactly that the ancestors are expected to do in a situation like this. Reading one of the news reports on the ceremony, a curious line by one of Suma's people during the ritual stood out for me: "We know that you will not forsake him, his enemies will not succeed."

It is one thing to ask the ancestors for assistance, as I am certain it is very similar to make a plea to the man upstairs when one finds themself in a bit of a pickle but by the gods, it is quite another matter altogether to make such a plea when you yourself have played such a critical role in landing in that rather awkward and unenviable position. How are the ancestors to provide a solution when Zuma is part of the problem? Then again, much of the posture that we have seen from him and the rest of the ANC, or at least his circle of cadres and financial backers, has been that of either outright oblivion to any wrong doing or a determined effort to evade the light by any means necessary.

We must remember that Zuma’s appeal to the ancestors is nothing particularly odd in the context of South Africa and the rest of the continent, nor is it peculiar or limited to the traditions and superstitions of African black people. Europeans also have an illustrious history with the worshipping of gods and idols – from the Greeks and the Nordic tribes, to the Romans who, despite the efforts of Constantine, did not altogether relinquish the splendours of paganism. Hitler himself, it is written, had the rather dastardly notion of a pure race embedded in his head and, along with it, certainly reinforcing albeit ridiculous ideas that owed much of their provenance to the theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky.

But Zuma’s recent act, far out as it may seem, reminds me of a conversation I had with an ANC branch member in the Dibate-Motlhabeng district of Mafikeng-Mmabatho a while back. Asking him who he was favouring with the upcoming Mangaung conference, he was confidently adamant that there was no way that the delegation coming from Mafikeng, or the North West for that matter, was going to keep Zuma in power. As I listened to him, he told me about the practice of witch-craft that comes with the territory of seeking and holding on to power, in his branch I assumed. 

He told me how most of the cadres have a witch-doctor or someone who protects them – from each other it sounded. Some, he went on, had gone as far as travelling to other countries just so that they had an unknown power on their side when the time came for them to make their play for power. Now you may say to yourself that this all sounds like the worst kind of fiction but imagine if you will how I felt listening, feigning deep interest in the tales of that cadre.

Imagine also, that the aforementioned cadre is but one of many who hold the views that he does. We can’t really say they are wrong nor delegitimise motivations behind them but at the same time it’s difficult to believe that the responsibilities of public office can be deferred to such views or that the ancestors, should they decide to intervene, see nothing wrong with the state of South African politics under the leadership of Zuma. 


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