Zuma on racism

“South Africa’s ‘deep scars’ still show” – Zuma.

CAPE TOWN - President Jacob Zuma gave a speech in Parliament steeped in reflections on South Africa’s racist past.

While not directly mentioning the furore over the Brett Murray painting, Zuma’s address to the National Assembly was clearly deeply connected to it. He told Parliament the right to freedom of expression should not trump the right to dignity.

“No right is superior to other rights. In the same vein, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that certain rights are more important to certain sections of South African society than others. Freedom of expression is as understood and appreciated in Constantia as it is in Gugulethu.”

The debate over the painting showing Zuma with his genitals exposed, has been carried from the streets into the chamber of Parliament this week. Members of Parliament on Wednesday reached boiling point, arguing fiercely from opposing sides of the political divide.

Congress of the People leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, accused Zuma of violating his oath of office by failing to uphold his Constitutional obligation to protect the rights of artist, Brett Murray, and City Press Editor, Ferial Haffajee.

He said Zuma had stood by while Cabinet ministers resorted to “fascist style measures and tactics to threaten those who were exercising their rights” and were waiting for the High Court to deliver a judgement. Lekota was in turn lambasted by ANC MPs.

The president did not respond to Lekota, but said South Africans needed to fight for their rights.

“We fought for non-racialism, and we will defend it…we fought for this Constitution and we will defend it. We should not lose sight of the fact that this country has a history, a very, very painful history whose deep scars still show.

“Life did not begin in 1994. No amount of denial will take this historical fact away.”

Zuma said people had the right to express themselves, but that “no right is absolute.”

“It must be exercised with due regard to the rights of others. That is the balance we have to strike at all times.”

He said angrily that many South Africans glossed over the past.

“You’re talking about poverty as if it fell from nowhere…people dispossessed from their land… …made to be homeless and landless … and that’s what we are trying to correct today and we’re trying to correct it in two decades when it was damaged for three centuries.”

He said black South Africans were still trying to recover from decades of being considered as “lesser human beings subject to indignity, inhumane treatment and humiliation.

“Out of that pain, we must build a new society together, and bury hatred and mistrust.”

Political scientist based at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, Mcebisi Ndletyana, said it was clear that by focusing on race in his speech, the president was trying to underscore the need for South Africans to be sensitive.

He said the undertones of the speech related directly to Zuma’s anger over “The Spear” painting.

He told Moneyweb that while being sensitive to the legacy of racism was a valid concern, not all black South Africans shared Zuma’s view that the painting has been racist in nature.

“Most people read it as a critique of power…a ridicule of power and as an artist’s depiction of the president. The president’s racial interpretation is certainly not shared by all black people.”

Ndletyana said “public ridicule” was a very useful way of ensuring that citizens do not “worship” those in power.

“Those in power build a sense of invincibility around themselves. Public ridicule stops ordinary people from sliding into a position where they regard those in power as demi-gods.”

During his speech, Zuma berated MPs for getting out of hand in the debate on the presidency budget vote.

During a slanging match over Lekota’s comments, Deputy Speaker, Nomaindia Mfeketo called MPs to order and said Parliament was not “a shebeen where spurious allegations are made with impunity”.

Zuma said an 80-year-old woman who had been a guest of his at the Wednesday debate left the National Assembly “traumatised.”

“She was shocked and disappointed by the conduct of some honourable members”

“We need to remember that visitors to this house need to leave with a good impression,” Zuma said.

DA Parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, labelled the president’s speech as “a weak reply from a weak president”.

She said Zuma had missed an opportunity to show leadership.

Zuma skimmed over a range of concerns MPs had raised during the debate.

He was criticised by Mazibuko for not backing the youth subsidy scheme. Mazibuko said the president should have stood his ground against Cosatu and announced that it would be implemented immediately.