Last Tuesday it was the 20th anniversary of the announcement of Mandela’s release from Robben Island. And what was
practically the whole of South Africa talking about…? President Zuma’s sex life!! As you probably know by now, a newspaper las Sunday published the exclusive that Zuma had fathered his 20th child. The baby born last October however, was the result of an extra-marital affair with Sonono Khoza (39), the daughter of football magnate and member of the World Cup organising committee Irvin Khoza. Ever since the story broke, all of the South African media, the blogosphere, the twittersphere has been of fire, discussing the matter. As an example, Thought Leader, the opinion portal of the newspapater Mail and Guardian, and the top ranked blog in Africa, according to Afrigator, has published numerous posts on the matter, by different columnists. Just listing some of their titles gives an idea of what are the most important problemas and aspects which derive from the whole story: for example, Michael Trapido – Is Zuma’s sex drive out of control?; Marius Redelinghuys – Umshini wethu weSex; Janice Winter – Father of the nation? In that case, the personal is public, Dad ; Khaya Dlanga – The president is public property; Alex Matthews – Why Zuma’s sex life in endangering millions; Christi van der Westhuizen – The ‘bonus’ of polygamy, but only if you’re ‘indigenous’ (Part 1), etc
South African President Jacob Zuma with his fifth wife Thobeka Mabhija, whom he married in January (Jerome Delay, Reuters)
I once read something along the lines that (can’t remember or find the exact quote): «political scandals in Italy are about always money, and in England about sex», pointing out that each country has a distinctive character that dictates what constistutes a scandal and what is an acceptable, or unproblematic behaviour. In this case South African society and the country’s recent history dictate a series of fault-lines which usually dictate how politics is conducted and how public opinion tends to get divided. Most of these fault-lines, which include: the racial legacy of apartheid, how to deal with cultural diversity in the «rainbow nation», the HIV-AIDS epidemy, Zuma’s character and his contrast to both Mandela and Mbeki… have been touched in this saga, along with more universal concerns such as: the responsibility of politicians, and the public/private division. Thus, as the story broke the ANC refused to comment alleging that the party had «always made a distinction between people’s personal affairs and their public responsibilities. Insofar as we are concerned, the alleged relationship of the president and anyone should be treated as such”. On a similar note, Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, argued that: “We are Africans and sitting here all of us [sic], Zuma is our father so we are not qualified to talk about that”; an explanation even more questionable as it sought to bring a cultural argument to defend Zuma’s actions (in this case the respect for elders).
But the indefensible character of the extra-marital affair, together with Zuma’s baggage, and the HIV-AIDS epidemy in South Africa, soon began to weight on the judgements passed on the President – who on Wednesday was forced to admith the paternity of the child (and announced that he would take two days off, because he was exhausted). Let us remember that Zuma was accused (and later acquitted) of raping a young HIV-positive woman in 2006, and that during the trial he admitted having (unprotected) sex with her and infamously declared to have had a shower to prevent being infected by HIV/AIDS (something which earned him a shower-head, courtesy of cartoonist Zapiro, only recently removed – more on this story here). This was an unacceptable behaviour from a South African public figure (and even more so from a future president), but Zuma appeared to have mended his way in last year’s AIDS Day speech, widely praised by NGOs and pressure groups, and in which he announced that Anti-Retro Virals would be made available to all HIV positive babies, and that, although mistakes had been made, the government would now lead the HIV-AIDS fight in South Africa, and that himself was preparing to take an HIV test.
A Zapiro cartoon showing Zuma and his shower.
Now, the announcement of this extra-marital paternity threatens to un-do all his work on this deparment, and appears to be affecting his support among the public, and perhaps more crucially among members of the Alliance. Thus, the M&G reports today that leaders of the ANC Youth League, COSATU, and the SACP, although not making openly hostile comments, «are known to have opined privately that his behaviour was simply indefensible». I have written more extensively here, about Zuma’s need for delicately balancing the forces within and outside his government if he wants to successfully lead the South African government. It also seems clear now, that the popular support that he enjoyed when he was invested in April last year is quickly diminishing on the face of contiuned economic hardship, and that the political support that he needs, is only being harmed by his «bedroom antics».