Last week's presidential affair detracted from this week's state of the nation address. Herein lays the tragedy of President Zuma's behavior. Instead of debating the merits of government's policies, or even the character of the nation's woes, the citizens are focused on the President's sexual escapades. With whom is his latest affair? Who is the new wife? How many children has he now fathered? These are the questions that have preoccupied the nation's citizens. The result is that public reflections have been deflected from the unemployment problem, the capacity constraints of the state, the HIV Aids epidemic, or any of the multiple other problems that afflict our nation.
The public debate on the Presidential affair is itself problematic. Too much of this discourse has unproblematically equated polygamy with the President's affair. The nation is of course divided on the practices of polygamy. I, like many other South Africans, both black and white, dislike the practice because I see it as demeaning of women, and find it out of step with a modern, cosmopolitan existence. But I also recognize that many of my fellow citizens, especially those of a more traditionalist bent, are comfortable with the practice. So whatever my personal views on the subject, I recognize that polygamy is allowed by our constitution, and that Jacob Zuma has been transparent about his commitment to polygamy even when he canvassed for the Presidency. His practice thereof can therefore not be held against him.
His relationship with Sonono Khoza and the fathering of a child with her is a different matter however. The Presidency and the ANC's initial view that this is a private matter between two consenting adults had to be challenged. After all this is a President whose private life is having serious consequences for public policy. Had he not wanted his private life to become fair game, Zuma should not have made himself available for the Presidency. More importantly, his affair seriously undermines government's message to counteract the HIV-AIDS scourge. Desperate to arrest the HIV-AIDS epidemic, government has urged citizens, and in particular its younger generation, to have only one sexual partner, be faithful, and practice safe sex. President Zuma's behavior of course violated all of the elements of this important message.
The President's defense is that he paid inhlawulo (damages) and acknowledged paternity. While this is much better than skipping on his parental responsibility as has become so common among South African fathers, one has to question the logic of this rationale. Is the President arguing that as long as he pays inhlawulo, he can go on engaging in sexual relations and fathering children outside his polygamous marriages? Does he truly want to send a message to South Africa's youth that it is okay to be unfaithful and have multiple partners provided you pay the traditional penalty? Is this not absolving the rich from any responsibility and enabling them to behave irresponsibly simply because they can buy their way out? Is this defense by the President not itself a violation of government's central message on HIV-AIDS?
It is true that the President did subsequently apologise. While it is a refreshing change from the previous administration which never felt the need to apologise to the nation's citizenry, however severe the gravity of their violation, Zuma does seem to have reached the point of having made one apology too many. This is the third apology that President Zuma has had to make, two of which were for his sexual indiscretions. Given this, one has to ask whether his apologies are real with the intention of changing personal behavior, or whether they are merely made to disarm critics. Whatever the personal intention, the apology seems to have provoked even further outrage.
Reverend Kenneth Meshoe of the ACDP accused Zuma of being a sex addict and recommended that he get treatment for the affliction. COPE's Sam Shilowa and other's from the rest of the opposition parties have called for President's Zuma's resignation suggesting that he has disgraced the nation. Some analysts and public commentators have echoed these calls. There is also significant anecdotal evidence that the broader South African public, and the black community in particular, have reacted negatively to the President's sexual antics, especially his invoking of tradition as a means to deflect criticism of his behaviour. The calls reached such a crescendo that even the leadership of the ANC felt moved to act essentially compelling President Zuma to issue the public apology.
The President seems to have succeeded in antagonizing both the modernist and traditionalist wings of the ruling party through this affair with Sonono Khoza. The modernists, embarrassed at President Zuma's indiscretions, feel that they undermine the dignity of the office of the Presidency. Some even fear that it plays into hands of conservative elements both in this country and elsewhere in the world who hold caricatured and racialised views of sexuality in African and traditional communities. The traditionalists are peeved at his betrayal of the polygamous arrangements and commitments. Moreover they are appalled at what is now the second occasion when Zuma has engaged in sexual relations with the daughter of a friend. This surely is a violation of traditionalist values and norms. Tradition it seems is only used when it suits the President's pleasures.
Nevertheless, however angry the modernists and traditionalist wings of the ANC may be, neither is likely to support a motion of no confidence in the President. COPE's call is therefore merely symbolic without any prospect of mustering the critical mass required in parliament to make it a serious option. The ANC, it must be said, can ill-afford another round of divisions in the party, especially so soon after the succession battle between Zuma and Mbeki. The collective leadership of the ruling party knows this and realizes that any action against Zuma would likely provoke a split in both the organization and the Tripartite Alliance, from which a recovery may not be possible. They are therefore unlikely to give into their anger and support a recall of the President.
Neither has Jacob Zuma's candidature for a second term been dealt a death blow. Obviously the case for it has been weakened by the scandal of his affair. But there is a strong tradition in the ANC that respects the authority and the tenure of its President. Only when that President has become an obstacle to the legitimate ascension to the office for others, as was in the case of Mbeki, or has become a liability to the organization, then only will the ANC's collective leadership act to unseat the President. As of yet Zuma has not reached this point. Should he avoid further personal scandals, he may yet proceed to a second term in the Presidency.
If, however, the remainder of his current term is continuously plagued with scandals in his personal life, and the organization is sufficiently embarrassed by it, then the leadership may be moved to act. Already indications are that the 2012 conference of the ANC will be the site of heated contests for leadership positions between the Nationalists and the ‘Left'. One of the positions most likely to be the focus of the contest is the Secretary General of the ANC. If Zuma wants to avoid joining Gwede Mantashe in the contest to defend his position, then he needs to avoid any further personal scandals.
It is too soon to write the President off. He has already demonstrated an uncanny ability for political comebacks. But he should also be wary of taking the nation and the ANC in particular, for granted. For when the ruling party feels scorned, it has a tendency to spurn its President. Just ask Mbeki! He after all, has experienced the consequences of being spurned by the ruling party.
Written by: Adam Habib, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on February 14, 2010