OPINION: If I were a Dictator, Zuma's 'I Have A Dream' speech
On Tuesday, the democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa, speaking to the South African Local Government Association (Salga) in Midrand, cracked open his consciousness and allowed his true dreamscape to envelop another bemused audience. It turns out that in the endlessly looped, Beyonce-style video album running in his head, he's playing Robert Mugabe in rhinestones, running the country from Nkandla/Neverland with the wave of a bedazzled wand.
What did we learn from Number One this week?
Democracy is useless; it makes poor people stupider; it makes stupid people lazier; Zumocracy would constitute a benevolent dictatorship that would smarten us all up.
What have we, The People, done wrong? Shoddy construction standards, mostly.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The speech in question, which was ostensibly about delivering clean, efficient government (yes, I know, I know), veered quickly into a twilight zone of confused anecdotes and unintelligible non-sequiturs. First, President Zuma provided a take on the history of the African liberation movement that would have been erased from a PW Botha fulmination for being absurdly out of touch.
It went something like this:
One day during his exile, Jacob Zuma was travelling through an unnamed, newly independent African republic - let's call it Bananonia - and was taken aback by the laze he saw all around him. Our president provided no date for this visit, but we'll assume that it was around the fall of the apartheid regime, and it offered distinct lessons for what was about to unfold in Mzansi.
"I got there and people were working very slowly," said Zuma. "They were not in a rush, and I asked the comrade who was taking me, 'What's happening?' He said people don't work fast, people say they are free. The white man has left, they are now free."
Um, say what?
Before anyone could grok what Zuma was on about, he took a sharp left at Bananonia's farming practices, which, after a cursory inspection, he considered less than perfect.
"The fellow spreads the sack on the ground," explained Zuma, "waiting for the mango to drop. He is lazy to climb the tree and pick the mangoes. Why? Because we are free. We shouldn't be like that. Sometimes I worry when people demand things for free, even things they can do themselves."
You see what he did there? He compared the expectations of the South African electorate - who pay for government programmes, politicians' salaries, and every element of the state that requires money - to the indolence of a Bananonian mango vender, who would not rouse himself to chop down the tree to get to the fruit at the top. (Is this how it's done? Could someone from Mpumalanga/Limpopo please check in?)
Anyway, Zuma has an alternate scenario worked out. In the event that South Africans get tired of the whole voting thing, he has a plan.
"If I were a dictator," he said, "I would change a few things."
Which is where the construction standards come in.
"For an example I would say to a family, 'You need a house. Here is the material and only bring the government person to supervise. Build your house. That is what I would say," said Zuma. "And if they say they can't build, we will just get the person who can build; they must participate. If they can't put a brick they must mix the mud. So that there is a feeling that 'this is my own'."
Which I guess means that Zuma doesn't approve of RDP housing - one of the signature, tent-pole programmes in addressing the South African housing crisis that is a direct result of apartheid. Somehow, housing demands are exempt from any form of historical specificity. Here are your bricks, here's the "mud", now go and build.
Did Zuma work the trowel while Nkandla was being turned into a Michael Jackson-like celebrity shag-pad?
He didn't say.
"This is a democracy," lamented the president of the democracy. "In a democracy you can say whatever you like. There is freedom of speech. Sometimes you don't understand limits of freedom of speech. We just say anything to anyone anyhow."
"If you can vote (for me) just one year, to be a dictator and close your eyes because I would make everybody understand that rights go with responsibility - (it is) not one sided," he continued, punctuating these important words with his signature "heh, heh, heh".
Was this a joke? A jape? Was the king playing the fool? Perhaps he was. But before we confuse Zuma for Chris Rock, we should note that there were other 'men of the people' who seized on his words and found them lacking.
"The Economic Freedom Fighters condemns the racist anti-black and self-hating remarks of President Zuma that poor South Africans are lazy particularly because whites are not in control," read a statement from the EFF.
"Jacob Zuma's utterances are an admission that the ANC has run out of ideas on how to resolve the problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality that face our people. His utterances are a reflection that he is suffocating in office and resorts to blaming the poor for the apartheid-poverty his government has worsened. The poor are the ones who clean his house, his government offices, including Luthuli House. Zuma is ungrateful. The poor are the foundation of the construction, mining, agriculture, and all other sectors in the economy, including public servants who serve his government. To call them lazy is not only racist, but reflects self-hate since he himself is black."
They have a point.
Or do they? Do we just not get Zuma? Are we unable to appreciate his brand of off-colour humour because we're uptight nanny-state coddled infants with no ability to mix our own mud? Speak with Zuma's financial backers in Durban, and they'll swear to you that he is the most vastly misunderstood politician in the history of this country, a wonderful guy with a wonderful sensibility who is cursed by historical exigency to live in the vilest politically correct, stuck-up era in this planet's three billion years of circling the sun.
Or does Zuma just not get us?
Is he so insulated and out of touch that, as the first line of defence protecting this country's hard-won Constitution, he's willing to dream the dream of dictatorship. Every president shares this dream; few, if any, articulate it. And when such a dream is articulated, it forms a sort of sculptural hardness; it becomes a parallel fact. It is the one thing an elected representative never utters, no matter how much "better" he or she believes things would be were Parliament shut down, opposition parties gunned down in the streets, and housing crises solved by building your own damn house.
Is this the dumbest speech Zuma has ever given? That's sort of like picking the stupidest character in the Coen brothers' canon - too many to choose from, and stupidity is downloaded from the chosen onto the chooser. But for a man who claims to decry laziness, it is an excessively lazy speech, an intellectually indolent ramble through the mind of a man who no longer minds. It's the speech of a president who doesn't have to go to the stump again, who is past caring.
You, fellow South Africans, now know what your president makes of you. And you now know what he makes of his presidency.
Allow him to be a dictator for just a day - just one 24-hour stretch - and he'll sort everything out.
And while you're at it, start mixing your own mud.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.