South African President Jacob Zuma is generally a man who harbours little fear of the negative consequences of his words or actions. Or if he does, he exhibits a certain
confidence that he will overcome any problematic effects of what he says or does. However, his reported utterances at a meeting organised by the ANC about what was
essentially a domestic matter betrayed an unfortunate attitude to Africa.
As reported in City Press, he jokingly advised in a meeting on the matter of e-tolls that South Africans must not "think like Africans in Africa generally, we're in
Johannesburg". He added that the Gauteng highways were "not some national road in Malawi" to buttress his distasteful humour.
If these statements were attributed to an ordinary citizen of any African country, they probably would not make headlines. But coming as they do from South Africa's
president, they cannot be swept under the carpet. As a Zimbabwean, I am aware that humour has a role in politics, particularly where it is used for comparative assessment
of the progress between countries. Its use also relates to freedom of expression.
I do not agree, however, with humour being used to connote false stereotypes, let alone being used in such an abrasive and far reaching manner by a sitting head of state.
More so, by an African one, at a time when the continent remains on the international back-foot due, in part, to the perpetuation of uninformed stereotyping of some
countries as more equal than others.
Zuma's regrettable comments have the specific import of implying two issues. First, he believes that his country is exceptional and therefore cannot be viewed from the prism
of being a sister African country. He may be correct in the eyes of his supporters, but the premise of this argumentation is politically misplaced.
South Africa is indeed an exceptional country, but not by way of narrow, self-serving comparison to the development of other African countries. It is exceptional in the sense
that it owes its liberation not only to the current ruling party, but to the contribution of many African countries and people that its current president finds it fit to deride.
Furthermore, assumption of any economic/development superiority of South Africa must also be premised on the knowledge that due to the colonial development of forced
(political and economic) circular migration in Southern Africa, its current status is also grounded historically in the people of the sub-region.
This is why some of the most tragic colonial institutions were the Native Labour Associations, inclusive of the notorious, but heavily utilised, Witwatersrand Native Labour
Association (commonly referred to as Wenela by us African locals.)
In claiming a specific un-African uniqueness to his country, President Zuma is being dishonest to himself and the legacy of African liberation struggle that his own party, the
ANC, proudly lays claim to.
His utterances are disheartening confirmation of the unfortunate myth that the more an African country was colonised, the better it turned out in terms of
If that were to be true, we might as well thank the settler colonials for getting us to where we are, a development that would be a treasonous betrayal of the liberation
struggles whose challenges and objectives we are still trying to overcome and achieve.
A second and final effect of the statement attributed to Zuma is its import on xenophobia in his own backyard.
The consistent and violent "othering" of fellow Africans by poorer South Africans cannot have found better endorsement than in the utterances of its head of government.
Because there is a misconception that citizens from other African countries come to take local jobs, any insinuation, particularly at the highest leadership level, that South
Africa is rich beyond the imagination of the rest of the continent does not serve to promote peaceful co-existence in volatile communities. Instead, it gives an incorrect
nationalistic premise to poorer and disadvantaged South Africans to want to gatekeep violently the wealth that they do not control anyway.
Indeed, South Africa is exceptional (as is any other country) and its roads are not like those of Malawi.
However, it is an African country on the African continent with its historical umbilical cord in Africa.
While we can forgive the ignorance of musicians and other artistic celebrities, President Zuma's unfortunate attempt at humour is not funny.
Takura Zhangazha is the outgoing executive director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (www.vmcz.co.zw). The views expressed here are his own