Sunday, 18 October 2009

How I was able to put a question straight to President Zuma

President Zuma meeting religious leaders
To my surprise this Saturday morning I was able to put a strategic question to the President which he gave considerable thought and comment.
Not so long ago I was approached and asked whether I would like to be invited to a meeting with President Zuma, a prospect I could not refuse. On Saturday morning religious leaders of various kinds congregated at the Anglican Archbishop’s residence in Newlands. Security was in evidence all over the place and the actual meeting was to take place in a medium sized tent in the garden at the back of the age old Cape Dutch mansion.
The 50 odd people there had to stand up when the President entered. Prayers followed presented by the different faiths, Christian Unitarian, African Traditional Religion, Islam, Hinduism, Baha’i, and Christian Protestant. Anglican Archbishop Thabo Magoba held his welcome speech, following his set manuscript and it took him just over five minutes.
The whole meeting was planned to take one hour and fifteen minutes, thus it would make it possible for the President to take part in an important funeral in Gugulethu at 11h00. The reality that unfolded was somewhat different: arrival at about 9h25 instead of 9h00, and our meeting was still on at 11h30. The master of ceremonies laconically said, “now we will hopefully at least join the funeral at the grave side, but these days any cemetery could be used not just the ones next to Gugulethu”.
President Zuma now was given the word. He stood up, he looked very friendly, his shaved head has a strange feature with a dip in the middle (or have I looked too much at Zapiro’s caricatures with the shower on top?), he is rather tall, he is I think 67 years old and he was this morning like so many others these days suffering from a cold. He spoke for about 45 minutes without a manuscript. And it was not bad. It was very balanced, so as not to give the journalists present a chance to make a story. He emphasized the role of the religious communities and in the course of the talk it more and more was about the churches, which also rightly so predominate in South Africa in relation to the rest. Zuma told us that he was a proud member of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa and he stated quite correctly I think that South Africans are a religious people.
Religious people have to pray for the government. Here he outlined a kind of dichotomy, the political sphere and the religious sphere, pointing out that any country needs both and the roles are different. When instituting laws, churches and other religions must give their views so that not a wrong kind of law is passed.
Churches etc must not only pray for those in government and power. It must also advise. But not only that, churches also have to speak out and even criticize government policies. Later on he also mentioned that particular church leader who never has stopped criticizing the government and the ANC, Archbishop Tutu. President Zuma also revealed that Archbishop Tutu had made peace with him. He took the initiative not the President, Tutu having said last year that it would be better for the country if Zuma withdrew his candidature for president.
The President also in a very gentle yet firm way recalled the fact that Cape Town is a much divided city in terms of class (rich and poor) and in terms of race. He also alluded to the fact that the ANC in the Western Cape had almost completely failed to live up to their role as leadership. Without saying it in so many words, he clearly invited the churches and the other religious communities to get involved and do something about these shrill divisions. Another participant who is a Quaker afterwards said that he thought Zuma tried to kill two birds with one stone: by cooperation the churches could play a role in getting ANC into shape in the Western Cape and through the churches he could also get support for a conservative morality (gender relations, homosexuality). Maybe the Quaker friend was entitled to draw these conclusions but neither of the two birds was explicitly mentioned.
I have written several blogs on President Zuma, mostly before he became president of the country. What is said is said. However, I want to emphasize here that there are two qualities that seem to show at an occasion like this and they are not without importance: humility and openness. I know that anyone who has reached the pinnacle of ambition can afford to give such impressions but I am right now of the opinion that there is more to it than that. Zuma said early on in his speech, “I am a very simple man of the people”, and he meant it and we all know that this is so, and his formal education is absolutely minimal. So I think there is a sense in which he shows forth a genuine humility. The openness is easier to verify as it is a fact to most observers that quite a shift has taken place since the Mbeki regime. As a contrast there is now far more openness in all directions and Zuma’s politics is a kind of consensus politics.
Question time, and the master of ceremonies, due to the delay and the funeral waiting for the President in Gugulethu, makes it clear that there is actually no time for questions. Nevertheless, in true South African fashion there would be question time even though limited. Initially only four would be given the opportunity, but in the end about ten were able to make known their concerns and most of these got an answer.
For once I had a clear idea what I wanted to ask the President about so I shot up my hand and was the first to go ahead: “Mr President”, and having introduced myself as one who teaches at the UWC also having found that students have a renewed interest in Black Consciousness and Steve Biko, I continued, “in your opinion, would an emphasis on Black Consciousness now be to throw a spanner in the wheel or would it be able to address not only the problem of race but also of poverty?”
I was commended by the master of ceremonies for being short and concise, but after a long row of questions I started to wonder whether the President would still remember mine which came first.
I should not have wondered. President Zuma started off by saying that the answer could not be a simple answer. Not knowing exactly my position (not knowing rather that I strongly endorse such a movement also at this time) he certainly was a bit cautious, but was still able to say that due to the inequalities in society such a consciousness will stay for some time to come. He talked about this movement from a typically ANC perspective, which is to endorse it, say that it is an indispensable part of the struggle history but also to mean that by now this should have been something of the past. He ended off by saying, “the day we have reached a state of equality, there will be no need for Black Consciousness”. What is implied in such a statement? Is it to say that as we will never see such equality such a consciousness will always be needed? By the way, Zuma’s ending echoed Biko in a convincing way. Biko also thought that in a society where race and ethnicity are not any longer defining people’s basic understanding of their identities Black Consciousness will be superfluous.
I was slightly amazed by the fact that the President almost five minutes on answering this question but understood later that the questions from I think at least three Christians pastors in Khayelitsha (the largest very poor township in Cape Town) aired the same concern: we as black churches in Khayelitsha are neglected, marginalized, forgotten. This is Cape Town in 2009. There is still work to be done and my firm impression is that the President of South Africa sees and hears these people.

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