He's not a liar or a loon - he's living on Planet Zuma
I am starting to believe the former president inhabits a reality utterly unrecognisable to you or me
Some people think that former president Jacob Zuma is a liar.
He lied, they will claim, from his very first moments in office, when he vowed to uphold the constitution and defend South Africa’s laws.
Even at the end, they will insist, he was lying; telling the country he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong; playing the role of a bemused grandfather unfairly ganged up on by an ungrateful family.
I can see why they’d believe he was lying all along. These days, however, I’m not sure they’re right.
It comes down to our definition of a lie, which is, we all agree, to make an intentionally false statement. The liar knows the truth but chooses to present a distorted or entirely fabricated version of it.
But what happens if the “liar” is living in a reality where his lies are accepted truths? Is he a liar just because our version of reality differs from his? Is the problem with him, or is it with us?In some instances we are happy to be flexible. Nobody, for example, would accuse a schizophrenic or psychotic person of telling lies when he or she describes things that have not happened in our reality.
I’m not suggesting that Zuma is mentally ill. But I am starting to believe that he inhabits a political, social and ethical reality is that utterly unrecognisable to you or me.
I don’t mean that in a snarky rhetorical way. I’m not using the metaphor of alternative realities to make a comment about how out of touch the ruling class is or how warped the Zuptas’ morality has become. What I’m wondering is much more literal and practical, namely: what if Jacob Zuma simply doesn’t see the same constraints you and I see? What if, in his mind, right is what feels good and wrong is what doesn’t? Literally.
Consider his astonishing remarks to a Cosas rent-a-crowd on Wednesday.
The man who put Blade Nzimande in charge of higher education claimed that free education should have happened 10 years ago. The man who mocked “clever blacks” said that education is the route to empowerment. The man who helped hollow out the economy and drive it towards junk status said that South Africa needed job creators rather than job seekers.(There were other astonishing titbits, like his pride at making sure that the matric pass rate only ever goes up. I’ve been satirising the Education Department’s steam-powered “Pass-O-Matic” mark-raising machine for years, but I never expected a former president to publically endorse it as a good idea.)
His criticisms of education and the economy were staggeringly hypocritical. Almost everything that came out of his mouth was absurd. But they were only hypocritical and absurd if you live in a reality where there is cause and effect, action and consequence; where gravity pushes you down and venality is a vice rather than a virtue. And I don’t think Zuma lives in this reality.
Which is why I don’t think he is a liar. I think he believes most of what he says, most of the time, and, more startlingly, that it is mostly true for the universe he inhabits. On Planet Zuma, populated and kept spinning by a few hundred thousand believers, he was a good president. He was prevented from creating a utopia by a cabal of White Monopoly Capitalists and treacherous sell-outs in the ANC. He was betrayed. He is a victim. He did nothing wrong.
And so, when Zuma pops up again in a week or two to explain that State Capture is a lie and that if he were still president we’d all be bathing in chocolate, I will listen, amazed, the way one might listen to static from a distant star. And instead of getting angry or outraged, I’ll simply marvel and ask myself: what must it be like to live on Jacob Zuma’s planet?