Through a glass darkly
May 1, 2006 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The trial of a public figure can be a prism through which a country sees itself anew, sometimes more clearly, sometimes more harshly. The trial of Jacob Zuma is one such prism.
Zuma was, until last year, the deputy president of South Africa. He was the frontrunner to become the country's next president after Thabo Mbeki steps down in three years time. Now Zuma's's on trial for rape. And after that he faces a trial for corruption.
The rape trial has been both a judicial proceeding and a show. His supporters gathered every morning outside the courthouse in Johannesburg. They cheered lustily when he first swept up in a motorcade and stepped out, flanked by armed guards. They screamed hatefully when his accuser arrived. "Burn the bitch" was chanted loudly and repeatedly.
The campaign against Zuma's accuser became so vicious that the authorities are now considering placing her in their witness protection program after the verdict. During the trial she was already under 24-hour police protection.
Inside the courtroom the show continued. Dressed in a black chalk-striped suit, Zuma made a point each morning of shaking hands not only with his own lawyers but also with the prosecution team and the policemen who arrested him. His testimony was equally relaxed.
He argued that he had not raped the woman, who was a family friend. She had seduced him; she was wearing a skirt. He testified that he felt he had little choice but to oblige; in his culture, that of the Zulus, to leave a woman in a state of arousal without obliging her is impolite.
Zuma knew that the 31-year-old woman was HIV-positive, apparently the result of being raped previously. Yet, although he insisted this was consensual sex, he did not use a condom. He testified that he protected himself by showering immediately afterwards.
Anti-AIDS activists alarmed
That admission was remarkable enough; it became nothing short of astonishing when you consider that Zuma was, at one time, the head of the South African government's official anti-AIDS campaign. The impact of his testimony on the present day campaign was almost immediate. Anti-AIDS activists reported a flood of calls to helplines asking why people hadn't been told before that showering minimized the risk of infection.
Seen through the prism of this trial, the government's campaign against AIDS suddenly looked hollow. Even the one-time leader of that campaign didn't believe what he officially preached. The culture of male dominance and sexual prowess still dominated.
The other charges Zuma is facing, those concerning corruption, are also revealing of the new South Africa. He is charged, in effect, with taking kickbacks. Thint, the local subsidiary of a large French arms and electronics manufacturer, is also charged in the case. A South African businessman, Schabir Shaik, has already been convicted of having a "generally corrupt relationship" with Zuma. The court found Shaik guilty of making illegal payments of almost $250,000 US to Zuma.
Zuma's followers argue that these charges are part of a political conspiracy at the top of the African National Congress, the country's ruling party, to block his path to power. The government, they say, has embraced the ideology of getting rich and enjoying the wealth. Everyone knows of the infamous incident where a minister commandeered a government jet to fly to Dubai for a shopping trip. This rapidly became known as the "gravy plane." Nothing happened to the minister.
His followers say that Zuma has been singled out because he is too popular with the rank and file of the ANC. His populist style, even if it does include taking a little money on the side, reflects a populist program to spread the wealth and to move away from the elitist, centralized decision-making under president Mbeki. It's also designed to appeal to the trade unions and the communists, allies of the ANC but now sidelined.
Some have benefited more than others
The political and legal battle should be seen against the background of South Africa's development. The ANC came to power vowing to create a black middle class. A dozen years later it has presided over the creation of a black economic elite that owns more than 10 per cent of the country's businesses (up from precisely zero) and occupying more than 15 per cent of its skilled positions.
Conspicuous consumption in this black elite is evident. We talked to Busi Ntuli, a young businesswoman, who owns and runs her own company, Flexi Personnel, which places temporary workers. She grew up in the poor black township of Soweto. Now she lives in a large house in a gated community in Johannesburg and drives back to Soweto in a BMW, a car that costs more than the houses on the streets where her aunt lives. She argues that the car and her success can serve as models for younger black South Africans on those streets.
But Ntuli is quick to acknowledge she has been lucky. The South African government set up a program called Black Economic Empowerment and she has been a direct beneficiary.
"Am I the poster girl for Black Economic Empowerment? Yes, if we're looking at what it7s supposed to be," she says. What it's supposed to be is a way to promote blacks and women by forcing companies to give them preference in hiring and letting contracts. It's made Ntuli's business.
One critic, however, calls the program window-dressing, a ploy by large white-owned companies to keep economic control in their hands by, in effect, buying off black politicians and civil servants by giving them shares in firms to keep them happy and rich. The critic is Moeletsi Mbeki, an economist and businessman and also the brother of the president. Ntuli, he argues, is a token exception.
"At the level of individuals, yes, it's a wonderful gravy train for the politicians and the senior civil servants," he says. "It is definitely entrenching inequality but, most importantly, it's continuing to undermine the potential for growth in the economy because, if you destroy entrepreneurship, then your economy is never going to grow."
Inequality appears to be entrenched. Black unemployment still hovers near 40 per cent and, by some measures, the gap between the richest and the poorest in South Africa is higher than under apartheid.
The trials of Jacob Zuma continue. They are illuminating if not uplifting.