Taking into account the devastating consequences of state capture makes former president Jacob Zuma a perpetrator of one of the most serious human rights crimes, writes Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
I was recently in conversation with some colleagues about the News24 article that linked former president Jacob Zuma’s reign of state capture to the “gospel of prosperity” (How Pentecostalism explains Jacob Zuma’s defiance and lack of shame, June 27, 2019).
I mentioned to the colleagues that the argument advanced by the author of this article, Ilana van Wyk, reminded me of Claude Lanzmann’s notion of “the obscenity” of research projects that attempt to understand perpetrators.
Lanzmann is the French journalist turned film director who made the multi-award winning documentary Shoah, in which survivors of the Nazi death camps recount their experiences during the World War II.
For Lanzmann, the tendency by scholars to try to understand perpetrators of gross human rights violations represents an obscenity: “There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding,” he told an audience at Yale University in 1991.
Jacob Zuma, of course, is not a “perpetrator” in the traditional sense of this term.
However, as I have argued elsewhere, the dire and incalculable consequences of the insidious violence of corruption that has led to the deprivation of a chance for millions of South Africans to reclaim their human dignity is a gross violation of human rights.
Those who have purposefully created conditions for the flourishing of the epidemic of corruption ought to be called by the name that we use for all violators of human rights: perpetrators.
Before I return to “the gospel of prosperity” as an explanatory framework for understanding the brazen and systematic looting of state coffers, I want to clarify the appropriateness of labelling the chief engineers of the state capture pandemic “perpetrators”.
This relates mainly to consideration of corruption in the South African context as a human rights crime, an insight drawn from the Agenda for Human Rights titled “Protecting Dignity”, which was drafted by a Panel of Eminent Persons on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2008.
The Agenda identified conditions of humiliation and poverty to be some of the most serious human rights violations and thus recognised the experience of these conditions as an attack on human dignity.
The various ways in which the systematic machinery of state capture has caused devastation in the South African economy, and the way in which this has contributed to the continuing humiliation and the dehumanising conditions of poverty that have worsened with each generation in communities that have suffered under apartheid, means that the actions of perpetrators of corruption have deprived millions of South Africans their right to human dignity.
Invoking Claude Lanzmann in my comments here is not intended to dismiss the arguments of my Stellenbosch colleague, Professor Ilana van Wyk, who wrote the article I referred to at the beginning of this piece.
Neither do I wish to suggest that I am on the same side as Lanzmann regarding our scholarly work that is aimed at developing conceptual frameworks that can help us understand perpetrators.
Rather, I wish to cast my gaze on the spectre of the grand corruption that former president Jacob Zuma presided over – what has been shown in the commission of inquiry chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo to have been a carefully engineered facilitative environment for the flourishing of state capture.
We have witnessed the total absence of shame in some of the people who bear the greatest responsibility for the violence of corruption.
Their shamelessness may well be bolstered by the support of the “prosperity doctrine” that has been institutionalised in some evangelical churches.
To appeal to this Pentecostalian vision to explain their shamelessness, however, may have the unintended consequence of obscuring the former president’s agency in the state capture machinery of destruction. It rehabilitates his abuse of power by locating it within the institution of the Pentecostal Church.
Jacob Zuma is well-known for his tendency to use Christian religious texts as metaphors to suit his own ends, whether it is to win votes, to fight his enemies, or to project himself as the Messiah who will liberate the still-downtrodden from the repercussions of apartheid in order to restore the human dignity of his people.
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt,” Zuma quoted from Exodus in the old testament of the bible in a speech he delivered in March 2009 at the Rhema Bible Church in Johannesburg, the largest congregation in South Africa.
Zuma’s reference to God’s call in this biblical text to “Let my people go” and in other similar statements from the bible is a double move.
First, as a statement that shows that God is on the side of the oppressed, and implicitly that there was God’s hand in the liberation struggle that he was part of.
Second, that he is the Moses who has been bestowed with the God-anointed powers to free his (and His – God’s) people: “Let my people go.”
The shamelessness is in the perversion of this position of Saviour that Zuma has portrayed, because as we now know, it has not been to rescue the oppressed that Zuma’s presidency has been about.
It was not to bring to those oppressed under apartheid and to their children a “land flowing with milk and honey”, as Zuma read from the Scriptures when he spoke to the thousands of congregants at the Rhema Church in March 2009.
Rather, his brazenly engineered acts of corruption, like the systematic dehumanisation of the apartheid government, disregarded the cries of the oppressed, whose descendants now face the double jeopardy of the trans-generational repercussions of apartheid’s corruption, and the failures of some politicians in our contemporary government in their moral duty to act in ways that would reduce the suffering of the descendants of those who were oppressed under apartheid.
The balance between explaining the apparent shamelessness discussed in Professor Van Wyk’s article and the extent of Zuma’s accountability as a beneficiary of the crime of corruption is a difficult one to achieve.
What we need is not a rival analysis, but one that takes into account the devastating consequences of state capture, and which makes us think about those behind it as perpetrators of one of the most serious human rights crimes.
– Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University