Why ‘traditionalist’ Zuma remains so popular in SA
An analyst has made a study of the core of Zuma's appeal to the throngs who still line streets to support him.
Former president Jacob Zuma at the Durban high court where he is facing charges of corruption. Zuma appeared alongside Christine Guerrier vice-president of litigation at Thales France. Picture: Gallo Images
Former president Jacob Zuma may no longer have any official political power, but an expert believes his popularity will continue to resonate at grassroots level because his political agenda has been set on traditional values and standing for “the ignored members of society”.
“He is the hero of the condemned such as the poor, the landless and those who challenge modernity,” according to political analyst Benedict Xolani Dube, who says Zuma, throughout his political career, despised modernity but strongly espoused traditional values, a trait that would sustain him in politics.
Dube said the reason Zuma was still liked by many even after he vacated the presidency was his humble approach to matters pertaining to traditional leaders and their people.
“Jacob Zuma as a leader affirmed the traditional leaders’ authority at every level. As president, he passed laws that favoured traditional leaders, and one of those was that amakhosi and izinduna must be paid. He also supports those who challenge modernity, because he himself despises modernity,” Dube said.
According to the expert, Zuma endorsed land expropriation without compensation leading up to the ANC’s 54th national conference last December despite knowing traditional leaders would never agree to part ways with their land.
His statement at the National House of Traditional Leaders last year that traditional leaders must fight for the land to be returned to them highlighted this.
“The traditional leaders would never allow their land that they fought so hard for to be taken away by those who represent modernity. Remember that once you take land from these people, you are taking power from them, because you can’t govern without land in the traditional sense.
“This could lead to the ANC losing votes from the traditional communities, if they insist on redistributing land held by traditional leaders,” Dube said.
He said even beyond his presidential office, Zuma continued to associate with amakhosi and the Zulu tradition.
“Zuma has a huge following because he is seen as representing traditional values. That’s why when he goes to court, the streets are always filled to capacity with people who support him.”
Leaders in South Africa needed to strike a balance between traditional values and modernity, which Zuma managed, despite his slant towards the traditional.
There was a huge difference between Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who was seen as representing the politics of modernity.
“If it was Mbeki who appeared in court, few people, except the elite, would have gone to court to support him. This is because he represented modernity,” Dube said.
Dube, who is a senior researcher at the Durban-based Xueta Institution for Research and Development, said Zuma had become a voice to represent the interests of the supposedly ignored in society.
“There is no platform in South Africa for marginalised people to vent their issues, and therefore they tended to hijack any platform, including Zuma’s court appearances,” Dube said.
He said the 1994 constitutional dispensation altered the balance of forces in society. Since 1994, the natural class war between the poor and the elite was aggravated by the politics of modernity that had imposed itself on South African society, which did not understand it.
“We were so excited by the politics of modernity post-1994 that we put traditional values aside. Maybe we need to debate as to how far have we debunked our traditional values since the dawn of democracy and modernity politics entered our space,” Dube said.
The analyst said while the ANC struggled to strike a balance between modernity and traditional values, Zuma personally had not forgotten his roots.
“Zuma has managed to undermine the modernity advocates, of which he was supposed to be part, but opted for tradition,” Dube said.
Zuma’s deliberate association with traditional values were traceable in his adoption of polygamy, his establishment of ties with independent churches instead of the mainstream Christian churches, and his regular attendance of funerals of ordinary former Umkhonto weSizwe cadres, instead of high-profile funerals of ANC leaders.