I'm still struggling - and will go on struggling - to understand the cultural complexities of this country. The other evening I had a lesson in the distance from continental Europe in regard to the private morality of public citizens:
For the past couple of weeks the media have been full of the story of President Zuma fathering a child out of wedlock with the daughter of an old friend of his - the old friend didn't know about this relationship before the news broke (and the mother, Sonono Khoza, bizarrely tried to deny the existence of the baby in the first place). This seems to be one too many sexual relationships for most people - after all, Zuma already has four current wives and 19 children, and the ANC has been working hard to defend its leader's hyperactive sex life as a perfectly acceptable embodiment of traditional Zulu cultural values. However, Zuma was already living under the shadow of a rape trial from four years ago - he was found innocent - and the latest bulletin on his sex life seems to have tipped the balance of public opinion - his polygamy starts to seem like a post-hoc justification for just not being able to keep it in his pants. Another unfortunate detail for Zuma is that the ANC Youth League launched - the day after the story broke - an anti-HIV/AIDS campaign with the slogan "one boyfriend, one girlfriend" to encourage all South Africans everywhere to stick to one partner and use condoms (Zuma clearly failing on both counts with Sonono).
Until now Zuma himself has seemed to be relaxed and confident about his polygamy - he's said in public fora that he feels it's more moral to acknowledge multiple relationships and legalise them rather than follow the Western custom of having secret affairs (possibly with a dig at a certain French president who was an unacknowledged polygamist, and an American president who famously didn't have sex with a woman who nevertheless had sex with him). The latest scandal rather undermines Zuma's earlier position.
The other evening I was was having dinner with a group of South African teachers who asked me at one point what I thought of the Zuma story. Partly to be polite, I said that his private affairs had, perhaps, little bearing on his political ability, and that the ultimate judgement should be about whether he's helping to solve SA's many problems. But this was a European view. The teachers all disagreed with me - Zuma was a public figure and he needed to set an example in everything he did; his disregard for public opinion about his private life was a reflection of his arrogance, etc. The conversation continued and at one point Zuma was compared - very negatively - with the saintly Mandela, and I finally realised that what's underlying the apparently prurient public obsession with Zuma's sex life is a deep concern that Zuma represents a massive falling away from the high ideals of the old ANC and the great optimism generated by the fall of apartheid. Many South Africans are dismayed by the lost opportunities of the past twenty years - and they feel that politicians like Zuma are much to blame. Zuma's personal peccadilloes are symptomatic of a much wider malaise - he's now embarrassing his electorate on top of disappointing them, and even those who started off wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt are not in the mood to forgive him for the fling too far.