To caricature President Jacob Zuma and his God is simple: a polygamous first citizen who worships at the altar of the licentious. The high priest of patronage, access, intelligence and paranoia, who makes alleged sacrifices to the money gods ranging from convicted fraudster Schabir Shaik to the Gupta family.
A traditionalist and cultural conservative who, like many South Africans, balances indigenous beliefs such as ancestral worship with the Christian faith, yet remains immersed in the ANC, a religion itself to many.
But that would be too easy.
In Zuma, there is often a confluence of politics and religion, Christianity especially, an intertwining of the self and Christian mythology.
He is the “MacDaddy” of the libidinous political swerve, who went from being “crucified” like Jesus Christ during a series of court battles in the two years leading up to the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane to becoming the party’s president and heading its 2009 national election campaign.
During the electioneering, he descended messiahlike, on more than one occasion, from a helicopter in the sky to address rapturous rallies populated by the socioeconomically marginalised dreaming of “a better life for all”.
That year was also the year in which the politically motivated decision was made to drop fraud and corruption charges against him. Zuma went from the possibility of a prison term to the presidency — a resurrection worthy of any Easter Sunday.
Gerald West, professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of religion and theology and the director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, notes in his paper, “The ANC’s deployment of religion in nation building: From Thabo Mbeki to ‘the RDP of the Soul’ to Jacob Zuma”, that “there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Zuma has appropriated aspects of a likeness to Jesus”.
In an interview with the Sowetan newspaper in March 2006, two months before he was acquitted on rape charges brought against him by the HIV-positive daughter of a friend, Zuma likened his predicament to that of Christ, noting that his detractors in the ANC and the media sought to “crucify” him.
Outside the then Johannesburg High Court during the rape trial, Zuma’s supporters, including sangomas and traditionalists, carried crucifixes with his image nailed to it in protest at what they believed was a politically motivated dirty-tricks campaign instigated by Zuma’s main rival, former president Thabo Mbeki.
West’s comparison of Mbeki’s use of religion to that of Zuma is instructive.
He notes that Mbeki, while serving as deputy president and then president of South Africa, was initially “instrumentalist or tentative in his appropriation of the Bible”.
But, according to West, a significant shift was demonstrated in Mbeki’s speech at the 2006 annual Nelson Mandela lecture when he used the book of Proverbs to warn against increasing corruption and self-aggrandisement in society and called for an “RDP [reconstruction and development programme] of the soul”.
West also suggests that the speech, although concerned with South Africa’s collective soul, was part of a trajectory for Mbeki to legitimise the much-maligned growth, development and redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic policy that replaced the RDP initiative.
This, West argues, was done by Mbeki suggesting that South Africa’s growing inequality had much less to do with the economic system (Gear) and much more to do with individual and collective morality.
This trajectory, according to West, continued to Polokwane, where the RDP-of-the-soul discussion document called for a “secular spirituality” and an attempt (seemingly ignored) to inculcate these sentiments in policy.
Whereas Mbeki’s use of the Bible was “erudite and somewhat bookish”, according to West, “Zuma is robustly Christian in his religious discourse, favouring the more Pentecostal and ‘fundamentalist’ (in terms of the RDP-of-the-soul discussion document) forms of Christianity”.
This is also evident in Zuma’s courting of the charismatic and prosperity gospel folds around election time. He was made an honorary pastor at a meeting of charismatic churches in KwaZulu-Natal in 2007 and has often wooed the bling-based Rhema Church.
Ray McCauley, the founder of the Rhema Church and perpetual defender of the government in various newspapers, is also the head of the National Interfaith Leaders Council, formed by Zuma after he assumed the presidency.
West states that Zuma “has clearly brought religion back into the public realm” and that although his off-the-cuff comments “indicate a rather rough use of religion”, his prepared public utterances “demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of the role of religion in the public realm”.
But is it the off-the-cuff comments that demonstrate where the president’s God resides?
In 2006 Zuma told a crowd gathered for a Heritage Day celebration in KwaDukuza on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast that same-sex marriage was a “disgrace to the nation and to God” and he would have assaulted such people in his youth. He subsequently apologised.
At an election-awareness campaign launch in Mthatha last year, he told those gathered that “when you vote for the ANC, you are choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC, you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork — who cooks people.”
Yet in December last year he was criticised for saying, at a road safety and crime-awareness launch in rural KwaZulu-Natal, that prior to the introduction of Christianity in South Africa “there were no orphans or old-age homes. Christianity brought along these things.” The ensuing uproar elicited the now customary missive from the presidency’s spin doctors that he had been “misinterpreted”.
At a 2009 election rally in Mpumalanga, Zuma assured the gathering that the ANC would rule until the second coming of Christ.
For many South Africans, Zuma’s ascension to the highest office in the land in 2009 was suggestive of the coming of a saviour, one more in tune with the reality of the poverty-stricken masses living in one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Yet the protests continue. Service delivery is haphazard and susceptible to the political intrigues in the ruling party. As the ANC moves towards its next elective conference later this year in Mangaung, it is riven by factionalism and careerism. Paranoia over the use of the state intelligence apparatus is on the increase. South Africa is not a country at ease with itself.
The messiah’s promises appear to be empty.
Niren Tolsi is a senior reporter for the Mail & Guardian
In the Mail & Guardian‘s annual bumper religion edition we’re seeking out God in Africa.