Link for the Day

The trial is over and Jacob Zuma has been acquitted. But that is not the end of the story. It is not the beginning, either, because violence in South Africa is at the heart of this case and violence is so pervasive, and so fundamental to the way people react to each other, that I sometimes think that hitting, shooting or raping are the terrifying means by which South Africans stay in touch. The only way they stay in touch.

The Zuma trial in these past weeks has laid bare, again, the awful underside of what passes, terrifyingly, for “normal” life. Terrifying because this is how it is for a lot of the time, though of course, we prefer not to say so. The accuser of Jacob Zuma, a 31-year-old family friend, was HIV-positive, and in the course of the trial it was she who seemed to be in the dock, she who had to explain and defend her sexual history.

Outside the court, meanwhile, crowds of people in Zulu beadwork and Zuma T-shirts proclaimed their devotion to the big man JZ, our home-grown “Zulu Boy”, while cheerfully calling for her head. Intimidation? Yes, but of a peculiarly South African kind – fear-mongering dolled up in its scary festive best. “Burn the bitch!” demanded the dancers in the streets, and as they danced, waving mock AK47s, they were holding up pictures of the woman who had dared to bring the rape charge. And, often, after another round in court, the accused would join his supporters in the hit song Awulethu Umshini Wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun).

What was to have been a trial about possible rape was revved up into a political rally, with supporters of Zuma bussed to Johannesburg all the way from Kwa-Zulu Natal, hundreds of miles away. The idea being to frighten and then destroy those who oppose you – the philosophy at the heart of traditional South African politics, new and old, even if those struggles sometimes play out as revolutions or rugby matches or rape trials.

As unpleasant as this is to read, it’s largely true. South African society is steeped in violence to the extent that we’ve almost stopped noticing it. The article discusses Zuma, AIDS and rape extensively, but it could have talked about so much more: the attack on Helen Zille, the casual brutality of striking security guards, protesting university students who destroy property or even take hostages, and a per-capita murder rate that puts us among the top three most violent countries on earth. Arguably, the government is not living up to its end of the basic Hobbesian bargain between ruler and ruled: freedom for security. There is far, far too much tolerance of public violence in South Africa.