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You are either for him or against him

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 14 April 2006

There is nothing worse than seeing your own country denigrated in the foreign press. Sadly, this is what the blinkered supporters of Jacob Zuma, the former Deputy President of South Africa fired for alleged corruption and on trial for rape, are doing. Stories of his supporters protesting outside the court have been splashed all over the foreign media. It has been shocking to see supporters burning pictures of the woman who accuses Zuma and carrying placards reading ‘Zuma is being raped’. Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, claims she even heard teenage girls outside the court saying: “We are waiting for Zuma to rape us too – we want to be Zuma’s women.” Given that some 50 000 rapes are reported each year in South Africa, this must leave outsiders, and I hope the majority in the country too, wondering just what is going on.

Of course, people have a right to support whoever they want, especially someone they see as having a significant role in liberating their country. I do not take issue with this. However, what is startling is how unequivocal and ferocious this support is. It seems like his supporters, to twist George Bush’s famous mantra, are saying: “You are either for him or against him.” If you do not support him, you are a political enemy and will be subjected to abuse. The fact that their aggressive protests will deter future rape survivors from bringing charges before the court in a country where one in nine cases of rape are reported seems of little consequence to them. The protestors’ actions highlight that there is still something deeply wrong within parts of South African society. The old apartheid mindset, which taught that the world was literally a black-and-white place, either all good or all bad, is alive and well. Further, if Zuma’s supporters have such unwavering conviction of his innocence, something neither they nor I have a clue about, then why not let the law run its course? The response, I imagine, most would give is that the charges are a political conspiracy to oust him as the next president. Do they seriously believe the entire legal system will conspire to deliver the exact verdict his enemies want? Sounds like paranoia to me, which is the flip side of the ‘You are either with us or against us’ mentality. Of course, Zuma’s supporters are not alone in this didactic thinking. Remember how Hansie Cronje was one day a hero and the next the pariah against all Afrikaners for fixing cricket matches. The inability of African leaders to condemn Robert Mugabe’s recent actions because of his past accomplishments as a liberation leader is another case in point, not to mention the way many whites use someone like Mugabe to make blanket assumptions about the draconian tendencies of all black politicians.

The ability to treat a situation with any subtlety seems to have died somewhere in our violent past. Is it not possible that someone can support a person politically or value his or her past actions, but, equally, be concerned about his or her current behaviour? It is time to shake off the past and grow up as a democracy. It might have been functional during apartheid times to see all those on your side as heroes and beyond reproach or all your enemies as evil, but the real world is just not like that. Surely, one can respect what Zuma has done as a politician but, at the same time, deplore the way he has let his supporters run wild in recent weeks, especially considering he is a former chairperson of the Moral Regeneration Campaign. Likewise, if he is found guilty, it will not erase his earlier contribution to helping the new South Africa on its way but, equally, his past achievements should not deter the law from taking its course.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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