/ 13 January 2012

That’s how we roll

Khulubuse Zuma has the biggest one. His uncle Jacob’s is much smaller in comparison, but it ­nevertheless presides over his ­generous Zulu form. Among other politicians, Gwede Mantashe, Julius Malema and Fikile Mbalula are headed in the same direction with theirs. And Kenny Kunene strikes me as someone who prides himself on his.

In this part of the world an umkhaba, boep or potbelly has long been associated with power and wealth. When I think of my father and other elders hailing from my hometown, an unspoken prerequisite for being respected by your peers, women and the youth was a large stomach.

Similarly, in a ­traditional context, a woman’s wellness was measured by her weight. A thin African woman was an unhappy woman. It may sound like something out of a fable, but it is certainly true of an older generation.

But judging by the excessive use of words such as “healthy”, “gym” and “low-fat” by my culturally diluted generation, one will recognise that we are certainly not fans of fat. But I made a startling discovery when, during the Christmas holidays, I reunited with a childhood friend, a black man now in his late 20s. When I last saw him a few years ago he seemed like an earnest young man, full of hope and enough of an ambitious patience to develop his own greatness. His clothes fitted him well and his walk was nimble and filled with purpose, like a young man on a mission.

The man I saw recently was a “fast-forward” version of my old friend — inflated in stature and status. He walked with his head held higher than I remembered. I could not tell whether it was because of his double chin, or because he was now finally a big wig. In a strange way, the look suited his beefy personality. He did not wait for me to ask but simply said: “I’m always the ­youngest at board meetings and it’s a ­disadvantage. I had to grow this belly so that the bigger fish would at least think I am older and take me ­seriously.” I replied: “Well, that’s something I’ve never considered. Good luck to you.” I genuinely was proud of his ingenuity.

It is an exciting combination of complex identities: the precolonial African man and the postcolonial black economic empowerment ­benefactor. Both are deemed as not good enough — in the moral and noble sense — by the trendsetters, that is, the white male.

I cannot say that I favour the act of growing a belly as a sign of healthy economic ambition, but I do ­understand the trajectory on which the idea is based. It is the behaviour of a generation that has won the ­freedom to decide how it uses the past in the present.

The ANC celebrates 100 years of existence this year. And I think it is this kind of black man the organisation was established to free: one whose purpose is to determine for himself what his needs are.