Did you hear about the latest stupid thing the idiot Jacob Zuma did? What a stupid thing. What an idiot.
I don’t even need to give you details, because we don’t need them any more: “Ugh, what an idiot!” has become the knee-jerk response of many South Africans whenever the president is mentioned.
To be fair, Zuma hasn’t helped cement his legacy as one of this country’s great philosophers. He has proved entirely unwilling to halt the vast and relentless crime that is our education system, a broken machine that now does nothing except eat up and spit out the potential of literally millions of young South Africans.
He is happy to choke off funding to universities and then make political mileage out of ensuing anger. When he spoke about “clever blacks”, he surely became one of the only leaders in history to imply being educated is a character flaw.
But of course that was always the plan.
Zuma’s surge to power was built on a fundamentally anti-intellectual platform. We’re not the best-educated country to start with, so it was very easy to link Thabo Mbeki’s alleged “aloofness” to his bookishness and addiction to long words.
Thinkers, the Zuma camp told us, are robotic elitists who don’t care about you and your problems.
Once those prejudices were firmly in place, all Zuma had to do was roll into town, singing, dancing and unleashing his vast charisma; playing to perfection the role of a man of the people.
Given all of that, perhaps it was inevitable that people would start calling him stupid.
The racists got in early, setting up a shrill chorus of “Zuma is stupid!” right from the start, perhaps because the best way of hiding the fact that you are fantastically stupid is to point the finger at someone else.
But not all those who have subsequently joined the chorus are motivated by racism.
appeal to the gods to restore justice by sending the queue-jumper back to square one
Many, I think, are reacting to the anxiety educated people feel when the natural order of the universe – school, university, hard work, harder work, status, power – is usurped by someone who seems to leap straight from school to power. Whether the usurper is a politician or a pop star, the response is the same: “But X is so stupid!” It is framed as an insult but I think it’s more of an appeal to the gods to restore justice by sending the queue-jumper back to square one and forcing them to go through the proper middle-class channels.
In Zuma’s case, however, I think the insults are meant. Which is weird, because Jacob Zuma is not stupid. Not by a very long shot.
You disagree? Then let me ask you: if Zuma is so stupid, how is it that he still has his job despite those 783 counts of corruption while you’re one sick day away from getting called into HR? If he’s so thick, how has he secured his family’s financial future for generations while you’re living pay cheque to pay cheque? If his Standard 3 education is so laughable, how has he learnt to play the game so masterfully while you with your degree still aren’t sure what you’re doing with your life?
Yes, you say, but accumulating wealth and power have nothing to do with being a good president. You’re right. But I’m not talking about a good president. I’m talking about Jacob Zuma. We have to judge him by the goals he and his enablers have set themselves; and by those standards, he’s a borderline genius.
Even in relatively staid democracies, where dull governments run quiet administrations, national politics is a bait-ball seething with sharks. Merely surviving requires extraordinary cunning, knowledge and lightning reflexes.
To thrive, politicians must have extreme powers of perception, interpretation and prediction; an elephantine memory for faces, names, strengths and weaknesses; the subtlety to play highly skilled operators off against one another; and the desire and ability to take in huge amounts of information and to discard instantly all that doesn’t help them.
And that’s just in Belgium or Denmark. Can you begin to imagine what it takes to become apex predator in these bloody waters down here?
So no. Do not tell me that Jacob Zuma is stupid. A disgrace. A blight we will regret for decades. But not stupid.
Published in The Times and TimesLive