A teenage idol

He sings, he dances, he sometimes says and does things that cause the chattering classes to cringe. Yet African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma is, arguably, the most popular South African politician since Nelson Mandela.

Why? Why did aged women supporters burn pictures of his rape accuser outside the Johannesburg High Court during his trial? Why does that suggestive roll of the hips which precedes his battle-song, Umshini Wami, send young girls into a froth?

And how did he come to be the saviour of the rural poor, the uneducated youth and the aspirant black middle classes?

According to tripartite alliance insiders, academics and political commentators interviewed by the Mail & Guardian, Zuma is a product of our stratified teenage democracy, which is hanging out at the globalised mall.

He is also a product of the “aloof” Thabo Mbeki’s machinations, and responses to them from within the alliance and from those who watched from a hovel in the Northern Cape as the presidential jet flew over on another transatlantic trip.

Liz Gunner, research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, argues that Zumania flows from an amalgamation of Zuma’s public use of oral traditions embedded in traditional African politics and technological advances.

In her paper, Jacob Zuma, the Social Body and the Unruly Power of Song, published last December, Gunner notes the mobility of the song Umshini Wami, which “floated” across culture, region, language and class.

It was downloaded as a ring tone, chanted briefly by a character in Generations and its phrases “tossed off” by radio announcers on Ukhozi FM, which has about six million listeners.

The Zuma phenomenon then enjoyed an “intervention” by maskanda songs such as Izingane zoMa’s Msholozi. Maskanda artists like Phuzekhemisi had long articulated the marginalisation and struggles of the rural poor in songs about corrupt councillors and amakhosi breaking the backs of poverty-stricken peasants.

Zuma’s travails and victim status, and Izingane zoMa’s comparisons between him and Mandela, appeared to add impetus to his growing pop cultural value.

Gunner asserts that Zuma’s debuting of Umshini Wami during Schabir Shaik’s trial and its use provided a response to Mbeki’s grey, distant technocracy.

It also resurrected memories of the massed funerals, trade union poets and Zulu praise songs of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.

Gunner found that Umshini Wami was born in MK camps in Angola and centred the “guerrilla/outsider” wanting to return to South Africa to fight for the right to be a “civilian/insider”.

It then came to resonate with the disaffected poor, who had yet to taste the honey of a South African democracy under Mbeki.

And the song cast Zuma in the role of “the icon of the heroic guerrilla figure [that] was melded with that of the beleaguered senior politician of impeccable freedom credentials”. South Africans love a victim.

Zuma as ANC president, with Umshini Wami, has “brought the dancing body and song back within the realms of discourse and debate within the public sphere”, Gunner says.

Cyril Madlala, former editor of UmAfrika newspaper, agrees that Zuma brought an egalitarian shake of the hips to political discourse.

He says, though, that Zuma’s grassroots popularity also reflected the inadequacies of Mbeki’s lobbyists—particularly at Polokwane, where they appeared so out of touch with grassroots sentiment that they believed until the 11th hour that they had done enough to win a third term for the “Chief”.

KwaZulu-Natal’s huge pro-Zuma voting bloc at Polokwane was decisive and the ANC’s provincial structures have not taken their foot off the accelerator since, even making big inroads into traditional IFP areas.

“Their election programme was very specifically set out last year. People at branch level all the way up to Kgalema Motlanthe will do door-to-door visits and know exactly when and where the rallies will be—and they draw the crowds,” Madlala said.

In KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma support has been given impetus by emphasising his embracing of his Zulu identity. But University of KwaZulu-Natal sociologist Ari Sitas, in the postscript to a soon to be published book on Mandela’s presidential era, notes the emergence of a new “masculinist and assertive Zuluness”.

This coincided with a “clear shift in language [within the ANC] from a popular democratic past to populist politics with serious authoritarian undertones”.

This, says Sitas, is “uploaded” from the grassroots and “downloaded” from party structures in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

Pointing to last Sunday’s Chatsworth rally, Madlala says: “Did you notice how many young people had volunteered as marshals? When was the last time you saw young people volunteer for anything?”

Young Communist League national secretary Buti Manamela agrees that Zuma has played a role “in galvanising young people to register and to vote—even if they may not vote for the ANC”.

Arguing that the youth phenomenon is global, a tripartite alliance insider said alliance members were very aware of the potential for a Zuma cult, which had to be “managed properly”.

On whether it had been so far, the insider refused to comment. “You can draw your own conclusions,” he said.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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