On 28 September the UN held a luncheon during its 70th session (“luncheon” is rich person for “lunch”), and just after the first course of wild platitude poached in a jus of lightly broken promises, and just before the second course of braised rhetoric on a bed of indecision, heads of state got to wander around the room and press the flesh.
You’ve almost certainly seen what happened next: the picture up top got saturation coverage in the local media.
Zuma’s critics marveled at what looked like an astonishing diplomatic faux pas. Who could be so important that he couldn’t hang up? The Guptas? The contractor installing Madonsela-proof windows at Nkandla? The ANC Women’s League, asking his manly guidance about the best route for their next march in defense of his dignity?
His supporters cried foul. This was typical counterrevolutionary neoconservative neoliberal propaganda, they cried: publishing one picture out of context and creating an anti-Zuma narrative around it.
Of course, the person who has done most in creating an anti-Zuma narrative is Zuma, but that detail escaped them. In theory, however, they had a point. We didn’t know the context. That’s because our media only published that one picture. But root around a little more, and some other pictures from that moment surface; and taken together, they look, well, comical.
The first shows a businesslike Barack Obama saying howdy. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding some dialogue, just to keep things lively.)
Barack Obama: Hi Jacob. Good to see ya.
Jacob: No, just land at Waterkloof again, it’s fine.
BO: What’s that? You like the watercress?
JZ: Just wait.
BO: Say what now?
JZ: Not you, Mr President, I’m talking to someone else.
BO: I can see that.
JZ: Heh heh.
BO: And you’re going to keep talking to them?
JZ: Heh heh.
It’s now got embarrassing for Obama so he makes a joke. Ha ha, I guess Mr Zuma is too busy to talk to me. I guess I’ll try again later. Ha ha.
And yet he won’t let go JZ’s hand, and JZ is starting to feel the horns of a dilemma pricking his presidential posterior. You can see it on his face. He’s pathetically grateful to have got a hello from POTUS. He knows that every single diplomat in the room would have hung up the phone the moment they saw Obama approach. He knows he should slam that Blackberry down and give Obama a big-two handed handshake and make a joke about mothers-in-law always calling at the wrong time.
But he can’t.
Because whoever is on the phone is much more important to him than the President of the United States.
I know what the Zuma rent-a-crowd yells at this point:
YES BUT IF THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONARIES HAD TAKEN ANOTHER PICTURE TWO SECONDS LATER THEY WOULD HAVE SHOWN ZUMA HANGING UP AND HAVING A PROPER CHAT!!! HE HAS HIS FAULTS BUT HE WOULD NEVER BE SO ARROGANT AND UNSOPHISTICATED AS TO CONTINUE ON THIS CALL!!!!
So does Zuma hang up?
He keeps that fucking phone glued to his ear as Obama moves past him to greet a Silver Fox who is eagerly anticipating his arrival.
BO: Hey pal, you’re not on the phone, are ya?
Silver Fox: Not at all, Mr President. Besides, I can’t use my phone. Repetitive strain injury.
SF: Totes. Messed up my thumb. This one.
BO: Goddamn, that looks painful. So painful I’m just gonna stand here for a moment massaging my right thumb with my left.
SF: Massage really helps.
BO: Don’t look now but is Zuma still on his fucking call?
SF: He sure is, Mr President.
Obama is just about to move on when another dignitary, Balding Man In The Foreground, rises to shake his hand.
The tension is broken. A perfect opportunity for JZ to whisper into the phone, “Listen, I’ll call you back. Just use Waterkloof. If anyone leaks it to the press I’ll just make them ambassador to Colombia. Bye.”
So does he?
He does the “Hey, do you guys mind? I’m on a really important call” face.
The “I’m going to tolerate your jolly hand-shaking for five more seconds but then I’m going back to the phone” pose.
Moments later, the dogs bark and the POTUS caravan moves on.
At last, JZ can get back to his call in peace and quiet.
I admit I don’t know when this last picture was taken. It’s possible it was snapped before Obama arrived. It’s possible some agency photographer thought they’d get a file shot of Zuma for general background bumph about the luncheon. But I’d bet good money it was taken after Obama left; when photojournalists around the room had seen the exchange and whispered, “Holy shit, get a load of this guy! He’s still on the phone!”, and they kept snapping until Zuma made that gesture – “I bet he feels this big right now”, “His country is this big but he still can’t hang up the phone?”
If it was taken after Obama left, then we have photographic evidence that JZ has no shame.
But then I think we’ve kind of known that for a while, not so?