Does the president’s penis matter?
Does it matter how many wives the South African president has and whether he is faithful to them? Should we care whether he enjoys dancing semi-naked in a kilt made of animal tails?
Jacob Zuma, the ‘100 percent Zulu boy’, is a colourful polygamist with four wives and more than 20 children.
South African artists have portrayed him with his genitals exposed, as an erect penis and with a shower growing out of his head – a reference to his comment that he took a shower after having sex to reduce the chance of contracting HIV.
But, experts warn, his influence upon one of Africa’s most progressive countries is deeply corrosive.
He is – once again – shamelessly using tradition and culture to justify sexism in a country where there is an epidemic of violence against women: from the ‘curative’ rape of lesbians (to make them straight) to that of babies.
He provocatively brands those who disagree with him unAfrican – a loaded term to use in a country with such an ugly racial past.
“Let us not be influenced by other cultures… Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man’s way,” he saidlast month, accusing those who criticise tradition as “too clever”.
Zuma, who did not go to school until he was jailed on Robben Island in his early 20s, said educated liberal South Africans don’t understand who they are.
“If you are not an African, you cannot be a white. Then what are you? What are you? You don’t know,” he said, before characteristically switching into Zulu to emphasis his African identity.
Zuma was expressing his support for a bill which would subject 18 million South Africans living in the densely populated former ‘homelands’ to traditional courts ruled over by chiefs applying customary law.
They would be compelled to live under this separate justice system, rather than being able to choose, as they can today, to use the civil courts.
Six out of 10 of those who would be affected would be women, often grandmothers and single mothers who rely on pensions and child grants to get by.
Women’s rights experts warn the bill could turn back the clock for South Africa’s young democracy and undo the gains women have made since the end of apartheid.
BLAMED THE VICTIM
It is a game Zuma has played before.
His controversial use of culture to serve his own political interests dates back to his 2006 trial – in which he was found not guilty – for the alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend.
He blamed the victim, saying that she was dressed provocatively in a traditional wrap-around kanga which meant that she was sexually aroused.
“In the Zulu culture, you don’t leave a woman in that situation [sexually aroused] because if you do then she will even have you arrested and say that you are a rapist,” he told the court.
In other words, she wanted it.
Thembisa Waetjen, who teaches history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, argues that Zuma sought to show that “culture, in fact, was the real agent on trial.”
He deliberately spoke in Zulu throughout the trial to emphasis the alien nature of the English-style court room.
Having a president who emphasises ‘traditional’ notions of masculinity and refuses to criticise African cultural practices legitimises such abuses, experts say.
There is a “widespread belief in men’s entitlement to women’s bodies,” says Nolwazi Mkhwanaz, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand.
Many South African men simply don’t see anything wrong with raping women.
One in four admit to being rapists. One in three boys over 11 believe girls enjoy being raped.
“I can’t look at him and not think about his dick. He’s made his entire identity about this incredibly hyper-sexualised being,” said Nomboniso Gasa, who writes on women’s rights.
“I think it’s a very dangerous thing… Cultural identity has become the code word for misogyny.”
In Gasa’s home province of Eastern Cape, there has been an upsurge in the practice of ukosula, a tradition where young men who come back from being circumcised in the mountains are allowed to have sex with any young woman. Ukosula means “to wipe yourself” in Xhosa.
When Gasa was growing up, there were only two such incidents.
“Now, almost every circumcision season, people’s daughters are being used as rags upon which initiates ‘wipe themselves’,” she said.