Not all is well with Zuma
Published in Mail & Guardian, Comment and Analysis, 19 October 2012
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.
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.
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.
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 marginalized women.
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 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.
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?
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.