On post-election Wednesday, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma joined the chorus of world leaders congratulating the now president-elect on his success.
South Africans, meanwhile, were coming down with a strange case of déjà vu… a popularity contest that opted for a man-of-the people rather than a pedigreed career politician was oddly reminiscent of Zuma coming into power in 2009 – as was the railing against ‘politics as usual’ in favor of a candidate who simply ‘says it like it is’. Actually, the two leaders are so similar that Americans could see it as a sign of things to come.
Back when Zuma ascended, South Africans were also grappling with a socio-political mind-shift – many people felt let down by then President Thabo Mbeki, a leader they saw as too hyper-intellectual and aloof. But Zuma, with his humble beginnings and lightening charisma was crowd favorite. It almost didn’t matter that his public remarks were often disparaging of women and the gay community. It didn’t matter that he faced rape allegations and had been accused of corruption and cronyism. It was more important that Zuma’s new presidency peddled a promise to unify a divided country and uplift the disenfranchised.
Trump’s remarks degrading women, the vilification and taunting of immigrants and refugees, and a more than a few fraud allegations – like we said, déjà vu.
Trump’s remarks degrading women, the vilification and taunting of immigrants and refugees, and a more than a few fraud allegations – like we said, déjà vu. And while Trump, unlike Zuma, did not win the popular vote, his supporters did enough to ensure the odds were in his favour, and now the US has a powder-keg on their hands.
Zuma has not unified South Africa or uplifted the disenfranchised; actually, his administration may have done the opposite, and made things a lot, lot worse. The country is plagued by widening racial and cultural chasms; the ruling ANC itself has splintered into factions over power struggles, and under Zuma’s reign there’ve been at least two major outbreaks of brutally violent xenophobic attacks against foreigners and immigrants across the country. Trump himself has condemned South Africa’s violent outbreaks, though given the rabble-rousing comments he had made about Mexicans and Syrian refugees, it hard to see how he expects tensions in the US to be very much different.
Though, when there are problem largely of his making, like the post-elections protests across the US, Trump is quick to play the blame game, and his favorite target is the media.
So what would press freedom look like under a Trump presidency? Not too good, if current precedent is anything to go by. Trump has frequently denied press credentials to unfavourable media throughout his campaign, and he’s developed a reputation for opaqueness and secrecy. Add to that, the Trump and his supporters have consistently bullied the press throughout his campaign with Trump even threatening to open ‘libel laws’ to punish any media who publish ‘negative and horrible’ articles about him.
Publicly, Zuma has consistently championed media freedom, a critical platform after the dark days of apartheid media suppression and propaganda. Though, over the years, as the media (and the Public Protector) have published more and more damning exposés of his office’s alleged crooked dealings, links to nefarious organisations and grossly unconstitutional mismanagement of public funds (for one, his flagrant use of tax-payers money to renovate his palatial private home in Nkandla), the ruling party has become a lot less tolerant of a ‘free press’.
In recent years South Africa has been steadily dropping in the press freedom rankings. There’s the controversial Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the Secrecy Bill) which threatens investigative journalists and whistleblowers with severe prison sentences, and another proposal from the Film and Publications Board to regulate online content… all veiled threats to limit and censor a media community whose freedom is critical to the success of South Africa’s young democracy.
Trump’s presidency may prove different to his campaign, and he may not follow-through on his vow to curb media freedom, but the threat on press freedom lingers. Americans should try to remember that it’s extremely difficult for the media to speak truth to power when that power is threatening to lock them up (or sue them) for doing their jobs.
In a year fraught with political scandal (like the release of the State of Capture Report) and disruptive protests (Fees Must Fall), South Africa’s 22-year-old democracy is celebrating a number of anti-apartheid milestones: it’s the 40-year anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the nationwide youth-led riots against the pejorative Bantu-education system, which had dire implications for the apartheid government (now commemorated as Youth Day on June 16); it has also been 60 years since the momentous Women’s March, where 20,000 women of all races marched on the Union Buildings to protest against apartheid’s Pass Laws (commemorated as Women’s Day on August 9). And with a cherry on top, beloved struggle stalwart, Winnie Mandela, former wife of the Nelson Mandela, celebrated her 80th birthday… another highpoint honouring women’s achievements across South Africa.
Pity then, that the president’s rhetoric on women seems to lean into a very different sentiment. In the past Zuma has told women they should not be so sensitive and claim that they’re being harassed when men are complimenting them (because they could miss out on a good marriage opportunity). He’s also said that he was impressed by Venda culture where ‘a woman would clap her hands and even lie down [at a man’s feet] to show respect,’ and during his 2006 rape trial controversially stated that, ‘In Zulu culture you don’t just leave a woman . . . she will have you arrested and say you are a rapist.’
Both statements, along with countless other made throughout his presidency, emphasize not only the inequalities faced by women in South Africa today, and reinforced those dangerous kinds of gender stereotypes that thrive in country where rape and violence against women (and children) is prevalent, they also allude to his apathy and lack of empathy towards women.
This disturbing cocktail of indifference, misogyny and oblivious sexism isn’t all that Trump and Zuma seem to have in common – they also have a mutual pal.
How does all this compare to Trump’s rhetoric on women? Well, he did say that ‘no-one respects women more than me’, even though virtually everything he’s done during his campaign (and even before that, let’s not the Billy Bush Bus Debacle) has proved the opposite of that statement. And if you’re struggling to remember exactly which of Trump’s comments about women were the most offensive, here’s a quick recap.
But what will life actually be like for women under a Trump presidency? Women’s advocacy groups warn it could be potentially devastating – the combination of Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress could likely see a serious attack on women’s rights, particular women’s reproductive rights and access to birth control. And let’s not forget that Trump’s Number Two, Mike Pence, is vehemently anti-abortion.
But this disturbing cocktail of indifference, misogyny and oblivious sexism isn’t all that Trump and Zuma seem to have in common – they also have a mutual pal (or, in Trump’s case, pal-in-waiting), Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s been touting his infatuation with all things Putin for years, and Zuma has buoyed his close relationship with Putin by allowing Russia to slowly build a worrying amount of influence over South African policy over the years.
For the most part this influence hasn’t broken too much with the ANC’s politics-as-usual – South Africa, Russia and China have always had close ties and a similar worldview (though that view hasn’t always gelled with the tenants of democracy that South Africa supports and the other two may not). But where this relationship really starts to look nebulous is in the realm of power, more specifically the alleged nuclear energy deal that Zuma seems overly keen to strike with Russia at the expense of his own country’s economy and also a potentially bright future for renewable energy development. And guess what, the Guptas are involved too.
Russia’s growing influence across the globe has tempted several leaders to put the superpower’s wants ahead of the needs of its own people. And this is where Americans who voted for Trump really need to start paying close attention. ‘Making America great again’ could mean sliding a lot of lucrative business across the former Iron Curtain at the expense of ordinary US citizens. That’s what friends in high places are for, after all.