Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Father of the nation? In that case, the personal is public, Dad

Our president has just admitted to having fathered his 20th child — this time, not the child of any of his five wives, but of a friend’s daughter. No, not the friend’s daughter by whom he was accused of rape. Another friend’s daughter. This time he scored with the daughter of Soccer World Cup local organising committee chairperson Irvin Khoza, Sonono. Zuma didn’t share the news out of fatherly pride — he tried hiding it, then denying it and only this week finally owned up under pressure from the media. Perhaps ANC spokesperson Brian Mthembu’s defensive assertion to the media that “[t]here is nothing shameful when two adults have a relationship” should instead have been addressed to his boss.

Julius Malema has — unusually — refrained from commenting. His explanation was, conveniently, a cultural one, which implied that all “Africans” should refrain from criticism: “We are Africans and sitting here all of us [sic], Zuma is our father so we are not qualified to talk about that.” Well, Julius, we only know of 20 children at this point, so technically he is not our father. But you do flag up an interesting dilemma in the ensuing public/private debate.

On the one hand, the argument against the media’s criticism of the “love child” story is that Zuma occupies the official position of president and is therefore available to us in only a purely public capacity, and his personal affairs (in a very literal sense) are not open to public scrutiny. This is the ANC’s official line, with Mthembu arguing: “As the ANC, we have always made a distinction between people’s personal affairs and their public responsibilities. Insofar as we are concerned, the alleged relationship of the president and anyone should be treated as such.”

On the other hand, the argument annulling our right to criticise is the one Julius makes: an essentialist African interpretation of its being culturally inappropriate to criticise an elder, which then moves the rationale from the realm of detached public officialdom to that of the private. Now, Julius, I’m not sure who you address in your assertion that “we are Africans”, but as my culture is included equally in the rainbow Constitution, I’ll generously assume you include me in your equation. In that case, your rationale is exactly what gives me the right to criticise Zuma. In my culture, respect is earned and while elders should be addressed politely, our fathers’ lives are indeed our concern and are open to our criticism, as they clearly impact on us. So if the rationale is a cultural one and based on the assumption that Zuma is our “father”, then the issue is open to public critique — as is the premise of the cultural argument itself, which opposition party Cope president Terror Lekota debunks: “His continued use of African custom as a smokescreen is also no longer acceptable. Polygamy is not promiscuity and his behaviour is not justifiable under any circumstances.”

So is Zuma a president or a father figure? Is he public or personal? And what is he to the media? Well, Zuma invited the media to his recent wedding, which as media ethics professor Franz Kruger argues, makes his private life “sufficiently of public interest to warrant media attention … When he advertises his private life, when he uses a cultural (not personal) argument as the basis of his defence, then it becomes a public argument”.

But beyond this, I would argue that the birth of his 20th child to a woman who is not any of his wives is a matter of public interest regardless of the basis of his defence. Responding to criticisms by numerous opposition parties and the media, the ANC said it did not see a correlation between Zuma’s personal relationships and the ANC’s policies on HIV/Aids. I find that quite bizarre. Just two months ago, on December 1 2009, Zuma gave a speech to mark World Aids Day, announcing plans to improve the treatment for HIV-positive people, and strongly emphasising that this “does not mean that we should be irresponsible in our sexual practices … It does not mean that people do not have to practise safer sex. It does not mean that people should not use condoms consistently and correctly during every sexual encounter”. He called for a new era of openness and a new era of taking responsibility, promising that “as government we are ready to play our role of leadership”.

It is expected that given this declaration and his call for new openness in confronting taboo issues openly, we hold him to account on his promises and his practice. It is the nature of responsible journalism and an engaged citizenry and is fundamental to healthy democracy. As Constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos said, the crux of the matter is not a moral judgement of Zuma’s actions (although I would argue that this itself would be entirely valid), but whether politicians made certain statements of principle and policy and their private behaviour did not measure up to those state policies and principles.

In that case, the statement by the ANC quoted earlier also warrants interrogation — that “as the ANC, we have always made a distinction between people’s personal affairs and their public responsibilities” — as does Malema’s defence that “African culture” eschews the criticism of elders. What, then, of his derogatory comment about former minister of education Naledi Pandor’s “fake accent”? Or his labelling of SA Communist Party deputy general-secretary Jeremy Cronin as a “white messiah” — followed by the ANC Northern Cape’s provincial secretary Dikgang Stock threatening: “We humbly wish to warn these rented hooligans and dogs and their masters that we will defend the ANCYL leadership and ANC NEC with our lives, even if it makes kicking this unbecoming behaviour out of them we will do that”? Also, Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association’s branding of Helen Zille as “anti-African”and “racist” in response (ironically) to her comment that Zuma put his wives at risk of Aids as he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, and countering this criticism with unfounded and absurd accusations by chairman Kebby Maphatsoe that “she appointed half her sex boys into the Western Cape provincial cabinet to keep them close enough to satisfy her well-evolved wild whore libido”. Or, finally, deputy police minister Fikile Mbalula’s inclusion of Kader Asmal as among “those relegated to the rubbish bin of history” and rejecting his criticisms as “the rumblings [sic] of a raving lunatic”. These recent examples have all been personal attacks by ANC members on respected anti-apartheid activists of an older generation.

In his diatribe against Asmal, Mbalula asserted: “It has never been part of our struggle or culture to seek liberation by the media, whom ironically Asmal calls upon to investigate the ‘dank, dark, dangerous areas of South African life.’ Our people have always understood their power to hold to account their political leadership and the power of the vote in keeping in check those that do not represent their aspirations. Asmal and his ilk, having realised this, choose to conveniently ignore the masses of our people and sound the clarion call to their darlings, the media establishment.” And now, just three months after this concerning verdict on the irrelevance of the media in holding power to account, Malema asks the media of Zuma’s current controversy: “What is political about this? You [journalists] must call me on political issues, not social issues.” I didn’t realise that social issues were not also political issues, or that the media’s mandate is restricted to political issues alone, and then only those with an upper-case “P”.