Last Sunday I attended a service at the Park Avenue Methodist Church in New York. The sermon, by the Reverend Cathy Gilliard, was based on the story of the orphaned Jewish girl Esther, who was chosen to be the queen of Persia. When the king's right-hand man devised a plot to kill all the Jewish people because Esther's uncle, Mordecai, refused to bow down to him, Esther continued to hide her identity. But Mordecai called on Esther to stop playing it safe and speak out on behalf of her people: "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
It is a poignant story that reminds us of the moral responsibility to speak out against injustice and corruption. As I listened to Gilliard, I recalled another woman's voice – one that has plagued me since the launch of this year's "women's month" at the University of the Free State. It was the voice of a member of the ANC Women's League hero-worshipping President Jacob Zuma.
The occasion was the fifth annual Charlotte Maxeke memorial lecture. If you were at the university that day, you would have been forgiven for thinking there was a film crew there, re-enacting apartheid-era scenes of police violence. The large police van and other police vehicles parked on the perimeter of the Callie Human Centre, where Zuma was to deliver the lecture, ominously resembled a scene from the past.
Inside the large hall, the scene was just as gloomy. Police in "riot uniform", hands on their rifles, paraded along the upper level above the stage. At strategic points and on the steps leading to the upper level, to the right and left of the stage where Zuma was sitting, conspicuously young-looking soldiers in camouflage gear and maroon berets were standing watch in pairs, unarmed – or, at least, with no visible firearms.
These young soldiers were not the apartheid government's army of conscripts about to be deployed to "the border" or "the townships". The armed police on the upper level were not to be mistaken for apartheid police, who were quick to shoot black demonstrators. Or that is what I thought until the "script" of the military forces around the president in the hall played out.
The Free State ANC Women's League had organised the event to honour the memory of Maxeke, but this script was not about her legacy. It was, rather, a chance for the league to show its adoration of the president. Every detail of the event was orchestrated as a build-up to his speech, which he delivered by reading Maxeke's biography. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, recently elected as the first woman to lead the African Union, would have delivered a more profound message, but was only given time to "say a few words".
This was Zuma's day – his day of being celebrated by the league. The league member chairing the event came on stage to tell the audience that the president would be entering the hall soon and there had to be absolute silence when he walked in. We were given candles, which I thought represented the light Maxeke shone selflessly to open the way for the formidable women's movement against injustice. But a different purpose for the candles was soon revealed.
Volunteers went round the hall, lighting the candles. "Shhhhh, shhhhh," the chairperson implored the restless audience. "There should be no noise when the president enters the hall. The lights will be turned off and only the sound of the burning candles should be heard," she said. As we waited, burning candles in hand, several announcements about the imminent entry of the president were made.
Watching this theatre and listening to the chairperson telling us about the "forces of evil" raging outside (a reference to the anti-Zuma songs being sung outside the hall) and urging us to "pray for our president", it struck me that the league no longer embodied the spirit of the noble fight against the injustices suffered by marginalised women.
In post-apartheid South Africa the league has lost the moral freedom that defined it in the past, when it was driven by a desire to widen the horizons of possibility for women of colour in our country. Today's league is more concerned with fighting to save Zuma's political career or the careers of members' comrades.
An uncritical "love" for Zuma was unmistakable in the music performed that day. At first, the songs were a mixture of light dance and choral music with no real significance. But the music changed when Zuma approached the hall, giving symbolic meaning to the quest to save Zuma's political career by fighting the "enemy" – the voices of dissent.
As Zuma's procession entered the hall, a talented young trio sang the words from Puccini's Nessun Dorma aria, often used at World Cup ceremonies as an emphatic statement of victory: Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò! (I shall win!).
This orchestrated symbolic statement glossed over the fact that, in the opera Turandot, the promised vincerò comes only after an act of mass death. Thus, in the terrain of the symbolic imagination, we might consider that, as Zuma's bid for another presidential term moves towards victory, there may be destruction along the way. Hence the importance of the prayers for which the league pleaded: "Please pray for our president."
This prayer component was captured by the song It Is Well with My Soul, sung by gospel singer Sechaba just before Zuma came to the podium. The song's original meaning conveys an unwavering trust in God in the face of life's challenges. Listening to Sechaba's voice booming through the hall with so much power and emotion and watching him projected on the large screen in front, I was left breathless. There was Sechaba on the screen, in a pink golf shirt and khaki pants, singing "It is well with my soul" with joy on his face – while at the same time passing in front of two young "soldiers" in camouflage uniform, wearing maroon berets and standing at attention, stern-faced and hard-mouthed.
One saw then that in reality Zuma does not put his trust only in God and that all is not well with the president's soul.
These images made a deep impression on me. The scripts created collectively by the ANC and its alliance partners since the days of Zuma's legal battles – scripts created to save him from rape and corruption charges – have played out in a ceaseless spiral.
From the public dramas around Julius Malema to Bheki Cele's militarisation of the police, from the Marikana massacre and the arrest of student Chumani Maxwele for allegedly giving Zuma the finger for the killing of Andries Tatane during a protest in Ficksburg, to the looting of public funds to transform Zuma's homestead into a palace complex – all these point to the crisis of moral leadership in our country.
It is a gruesome tale – how we have moved so rapidly from the era of hope to the bleak landscape ushered in by Zuma's ascent to power, how we find ourselves in a state characterised by poor service delivery, major corruption at all levels of government, increasing violence against women and many other problems that have torn apart the moral fibre of our society. What can it all mean?
What if it all comes down to this – that at such a time we are all called to step up, as Esther did when she saw the destruction about to befall her people?
"When we remember who we are," Gilliard said at the New York church, "when we stand at the intersection where potential meets necessity and necessity meets possibility – and we all will stand there at some point in our lives – we stand there and search ourselves. At best, we refuse – absolutely refuse – to live beneath our potential."
We choose, instead, to be courageous, to interrupt the spiral into the tragic dramas playing out in our communities. How I wish the voice of the ANC Women's League could be restored to that courageous place. How I pray for South African citizens to march in step on the path that leads to hope – hope that South Africa can regain the dignity it had at the birth of our democracy.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is senior research professor at the University of the Free State