SLR: Sick times – Jacob Zuma, John Bercow, a case of defending the indefensible

Former South African president Jacob Zuma has got his country twittering over a feeble excuse in the form of a sick note that his lawyer forwarded to a court in order to prolong the date on which a warrant for his arrest will be executed. Zuma faces corruption-related charges in connection with the arms deal in the 1990s and failed to appear for a pre-trial hearing. In the UK, Britons are buzzing about John Bercow, the pompous chap who struck fear into people’s hearts as he bellowed “order, order” to his colleagues at Westminster and has been, unsurprisingly, accused of being a bully. Both Zuma and Bercow deny allegations levelled against them; neither is defensible, according to Simon Lincoln Reader, a South African who lives in London and keeps a wry eye on international developments. – Jackie Cameron

By Simon Lincoln Reader*

Jacob Zuma’s glorious sick note reminds me of the story of an another peasant who badgered an Ugandan-Asian doctor, also in KwaZulu-Natal. Clearly fed up, the doctor wrote, ostensibility in the “Layman’s diagnosis” section: “PETRUS IS NOT SICK. PETRUS IS HUNGOVER. HE DOES THIS EVERY MONTH AFTER HE’S BEEN PAID. HE HAS NOW FAMILIARISED HIMSELF WITH THE KITCHEN AREA WHERE HE HELPS HIMSELF TO TEA. THE RECEPTIONIST COMPLAINED THIS MORNING THAT HE USED SO MUCH SUGAR THAT THE SPOON STOOD ERECT IN HIS CUP.” After relaxing for the rest of the day, Petrus apparently handed his employer the note the following morning.

**

Every time the name “John Bercow” appears in the news lately, I find myself washing my right hand, for this was the same palm I used when I met the dwarf in 2016. Fortunately the encounter was brief; the person who introduced us warned me before that Bercow was a nasty piece of work, with a reputation for bullying and self-righteousness that exceeded the most pompous of aristocratic MPs.

Bercow, who retired as the Speaker of the House of Commons last year, has been denied automatic ascendency to the House of Lords ordinarily afforded to former Speakers. The reasons are not as clear as they should be, thanks to the remain establishment, for whom he was a central feature. In support of him, they claim his circumstances are a reflection of his position in standing up for the EU  – even if it meant trashing Parliamentary protocol and tradition. His critics argue, however, that he was a merciless bully, with two former high profile staff documenting complaints.

When Bercow spoke that dreadful night in 2016, he mentioned nothing about the mainstream concerns that troubled sensible opponents of Brexit. Nothing about trade, about freedom of movement, nothing about the rights of Europeans in the UK. Instead he rambled into a rabbit warren of hyper-liberalism, reading off lines that sounded as though they’d been composed by nonces. “You will not object,” he seemed to be saying, “to the naked, Esperanto-speaking Dutch hippy with a pubic plait who sneaks up behind you on a Spanish beach and starts massaging your wife’s shoulders without anyone’s permission  – because objecting would not be tolerant or inclusive.”

**

Just as John Bercow has enjoyed a defence of the indefensible, so have Jacob Zuma’s supporters emerged following the presentation of the sick note, and the subsequent issuing of the arrest warrant.

There was Mzwandile Masina, a mayor so useless that he couldn’t even be a mayor of a sanctuary city in the US, declaring that he was ready to “go to prison” for the embattled former President. There was one of the so-called patriarchy’s greatest enablers, Bathabile Dlamini  –  a woman whose behaviour resembles someone attempting to patent a homemade hymen testing kit  –  claiming that Judge Pillay was racist, that Zuma was being punished for “blackness”. There was Edward, one of his more troubled sons, who pointed to an alleged friendship between Judge Pillay, Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom (at the time of writing there has been little word from Zuma’s favoured son Duduzane, presumably because he’s too busy wearing shiny t-shirts, or fantasising about about a life that would have seen him christened “Razor” or something like that).

**

Because fundamental reason is absent from both events, they mutate into examples of all that is wrong with our political order. In London, instead of exploring whether the accusations of bullying are true, an average, marginally menacing journalist called Charlotte Edwardes spared Bercow with a sympathetic if subtly flattering interview in The Times. In South Africa, the news emphasised the indignation of Zuma supporters more than it did the feelings of ordinary decent people. So a consensus of injustice emerges, because we have entertained irrelevant mitigating arguments  –  in Bercow’s case, because he is a Pro-EU liberal, in Zuma’s  –  because he is an advocate of something called “radical economic transformation”. In one country bullying is suddenly legitimised, in another, a dog eats some homework.

© 2020 - 2020 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved)
Sick Note (Jacob Zuma). More of Zapiro’s magic available at www.zapiro.com.

You cannot deny Masina and Dlamini their rights to views, just as you cannot impede Edwardes’ pursuit of the truth, whatever she may qualify that as, but whilst there are plenty of good South Africans with influential platforms, there appear hardly any willing to gravitate from the right or the left of arguments, to the right or wrong (Herman Mashaba being an exception).

In South Africa this problem has not only been exacerbated by fear, which is to some extent understandable, but with wild thinking that muddies the waters. In 2016, the acclaimed economist Chris Hart was suspended from Standard Bank for a statement deemed inconsistent with the bank’s policy. Then CEO Sim Tshabalala went further by declaring in an op-ed that the word “entitlement” is a fixture of racist thought.

These kinds of sentiments are the moral equivalents of rewarding people for failure  –  a demon both the UK and South Africa are incapable of exorcising. It would be interesting to hear Tshabalala’s thoughts on Jacob Zuma being entitled to a delay in judicial proceedings, irrespective of how crap his excuse is.

  • Simon Lincoln Reader works and lives in London. You can follow him on Medium.
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