/ 18 November 2005

Riding on Zulu empathy

There is a good Zulu word that captures why African National Congress Deputy President Jacob Zuma’s guilt or innocence on fraud charges is not an issue for his supporters. It is ukusizelana — ’empathy” or ‘mutual help”.

‘It’s like this,” says Mike Zuma, a guest at the Friends of the Jacob Zuma Trust cocktail party on the Durban beachfront last Friday evening, who insists he is no relation. ‘In the Zulu tradition, if my neighbour is in financial trouble I will give him a cow that he can milk to feed himself and his family. If it breeds and my neighbour can afford it, he will repay me with a calf.

‘I can’t look at another suffering, knowing that I have much to give. As Zulus, we trust you until you stab us in the back,” he says, patting his heart. ‘That is why you sometimes see corruption where we don’t see any.”

It is ukusizelana that motivates Jacob Zuma’s supporters. And it explains why they arrived in busloads at the Durban Magistrate’s Court over the weekend, despite the graft charge against him. It also explains why a list of sympathisers donated over R250 000 in an ‘auction” at the cocktail party. The auctioneer targeted well-known business people in the crowd and played them off each other in a slick ‘keeping up with the Joneses” display.

Protas Madlala, an independent political analyst who heard Zuma’s address to the crowd after his court appearance, concurred. ‘To the typical Western person, the African person must look very stupid supporting a man charged with corruption. But it’s exactly this traditionalism that has been overlooked.

‘Africans look at the bigger picture, not because they condone corruption, but because they weigh other things in the balance. Whites I talk to, including my colleagues, argue that corruption is corruption. Black people tend to argue that it takes hundreds of good things to go to heaven, and one bad thing to go to hell.”

The carnival atmosphere at the night vigil outside the court was a reminder of the deep divide between the strict, legalistic interpretation of Zuma’s actions and the traditional view.

Supporters are far less concerned with his guilt than with the selective way they say President Thabo Mbeki has treated him. In their eyes, tradition dictates that helping a friend, as they believe Shaik assisted Zuma, is not a crime.

Mqwathi, a supporter, said: ‘Whose tune are the Scorpions following? Why do they make easy deals with Mark Thatcher, why do they blunder in the case of Wouter Basson? Why are they not following Oilgate? Why are they not dealing with the alleged abuse of power by Bule-lani Ngcuka and Leonard McCarthy? Why are they not following the allegations of a secret meeting between Mbeki and Thint?

‘These are the issues we need to understand. We will always be indebted to JZ because we are what we are because of his personal sacrifices.”

Zuma’s supporters argue that it was unfair to dismiss him before a court found him guilty, and ask why the law should be expected to take its course in his corruption trial when it was flouted over his dismissal. ‘Mbeki should have suspended JZ until the court found him guilty. We aren’t going to accept that, Mbeki can go to hell,” said supporter Bongani Khumalo.

A forest of T-shirts and posters make the same point. One poster has a beaming mugshot of Zuma with the word ‘Wenzani? [What did he do?]” printed underneath. Others exclaim: ‘Bring back our Zuma or letha umshini wami [bring me my machine gun].”

Some analysts predict Zuma’s support will wane ahead of the ANC’s kingmaking 2007 conference because he will not be able to maintain his victim status. But his support is rooted in deeper attitudes. He is riding a wave of African traditionalism.