I remember sitting at a pub in 2005 in Orlando West, Soweto, with a friend and a young guy we had just met, discussing politics. Jacob Zuma was then in the news for several controversies that included alleged rape and fraud and corruption claims.
To many it was unimaginable that he would one day end up as the country's president. Our discussion got heated when we mentioned to the young man the possibility that Zuma could one day occupy Mahlamba Ndlopfu as state president.
He was totally aghast and almost jumped from his seat, as if he had been personally insulted. "A president with a Standard 4?" he shouted, barely concealing his inability to reconcile such a notion with reality.
The young man proceeded to argue why he would never accept an uneducated president and how most South Africans would not either. History has now shown that the snobbishness displayed by the young man did not reflect the broader thinking of his fellow citizens.
Close to 12-million people voted for Zuma and the ANC in the 2009 elections. One wonders whether voters paused to think about the president's lack of a formal education. Did people think about it and decide it was not important?
Or did it actually help him to project himself as a "man of the people" who understood their circumstances and plight, and was therefore best placed to address their needs?
I am referring to the education issue that has reared its head again after Mail & Guardian columnist Richard Calland generated controversy last week by telling the Cape Town Press Club that Zuma did not read – or, at least, did not read enough. The same kind of concern was raised in a different way by the Gauteng ANC, which, without saying so in as many words, sent a message that Zuma is not sophisticated enough to win over the middle classes and the elite who reside in the richest province and economic hub of the country.
The Sunday Times reported that Gauteng ANC secretary David Makhura said the party had asked former president Thabo Mbeki to be part of the campaign to win over the middle class, along with Cyril Ramaphosa and Kgalema Motlanthe.
"The president is leading our direct contact with the people," Makhura was quoted as saying. "He is not going to be in those house meetings in the suburbs. We are using him for big community meetings and door-to-door work. We are taking him to the people in … townships and informal settlements – the areas that are our traditional strongholds."
Makhura's remarks prompted an angry retort from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, as well as a riposte from the party's head of mobilisation, Nomvula Mokonyane, who spent most of Monday this week granting interviews in order to rebuke the Gauteng ANC. Zuma was not the face of the campaign for a particular strata of society, she reiterated repeatedly.
I am convinced this subject is a very uncomfortable one for everyone in the ANC and government. It is one of those hush-hush matters that crosses people's minds but is not polite to refer to.
The presidency was hard pressed to respond to Calland's comments, saying they were based on rumours and stereotyping, but fell short of directly contradicting him by saying the president read much more than is generally known.
On social media many people criticised the presidency for bothering to respond. Others said it was immaterial that Zuma was not well-read; what mattered was his ability to manage his Cabinet coherently. They pointed out that Mbeki, with all his education, had major flaws that were revealed in his running of the country.
It is clear to me, though, that Zuma's lack of education, or sophistication, or whatever you call it, is the elephant in the room. It is what his biggest critics throw at him.
Julius Malema, once Zuma's staunchest ally but now his No. 1 nemesis, recently remarked: "[Look at] Mandela Day. [It was said that every day should be Mandela Day]. But he [Zuma] said every day must be Mandela's birthday. How possible is that? You see the importance of education? "
Malema now says making Zuma president was the worst mistake the ANC made. But Zuma is a perennial survivor and has more than once made his critics eat humble pie.
And if he can deliver the numbers for the ANC at next year's election, he will cock a snook at Calland, the Gauteng ANC and Malema, and ask them: "What was that about education?"