They’re no Jesus, but good men
Zuma believes the ANC will rule until the Second Coming, which makes one doubt the party’s grasp on humility
It is perfectly natural to hope for salvation, especially if you have a history like South Africa’s. Nelson Mandela came to our rescue in the early Nineties when we most needed his moral guidance and he is today regarded as a virtual messiah by most of us, as well as by the entire world. So we have reason to hope.
But while Christians all over the world were deeply offended years ago when John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, their well-publicised outrage hasn’t deterred supporters of our recently-elected president from going so far in the salvation stakes as to link Jacob Zuma to Christ. At a time of escalating civil discontent, Zuma’s repetition this month of the Second Coming as an illustration of the ANC’s worthiness and hold on power makes you doubt the ruling party’s grasp of humility, among other things.
Despite the majority of South Africans, unlike Europeans, being incurably religious, they don’t seem to be either offended or confused by their president’s latest prophesy: “The ANC will rule until the Son of Man comes. He must come back while we are still in power”.
It is a boast that mystifies me, I have to say. In my atheism and fervent hope for an opposition better than Cope, it leaves me wondering if there is anyone already among us who could be Christ come to earth again. (Madiba made even doubters like me believe in miracles). The best local prospect I’ve come up with in consultation with colleagues is certainly not Zuma or any of SA’s often disappointingly mortal politicians but Bishop Paul Verryn of Johannesburg’s overcrowded Central Methodist Church, who conducts his ministry with seemingly Christ-like dedication amid the state’s indifference.
The original scriptures being nothing if not radical, Bishop Verryn has proved unstoppable in his support for the poorest of the poor – Zimbabwe’s refugees. No personal sacrifice, including opposition from within his own church, has weakened his commitment to the downtrodden. You have to wonder if this extraordinary man – who charges from one human catastrophe to the next in a swishing cerise robe with a long queue hot on his heels – sleeps at night. Journalists from every corner of the globe seem to meet him at the oddest hours to discuss the suffering of his wretched parishioners in the heart of Africa’s richest city.
Further afield, Christ come to earth again may be US president Barack Obama. At no time in modern history have Americans prayed harder for a saviour, according to a website in the country’s Bible belt. His rare, inspiring rhetorical skill and subtly virtuous messaging are long overdue in the morally-muddled 21st century. He seems to embody destiny, striding straight-backed like the Johnnie Walker man who knows exactly where he is going.
Obama even apologises when he makes a mistake, a quality so unusual in public life as to seem almost supernatural. Indeed, he exudes the kind of transparency you’d expect to find only in hallowed figures such as the Holy Ghost, though all politicians are doomed to lose their lustre sooner or later.
Didn’t you just love the way Obama straightforwardly asked the head of General Motors to resign? The disgraced American tycoon emerged robustly from the White House declaring that his president had asked him to walk the plank and he was happy to oblige. Contrast so respectful a public dismissal with British premier Gordon Brown’s outright vilification of banker Sir Fred Goodwin, aka Fred the Shred, who is one among many perpetrators (including Brown himself) of the economic crisis that has affected the UK so adversely. Having been challenged by a bullying PM to give part of his pension back to the British taxpayer and thus made a scapegoat, Sir Fred’s home was attacked by angry Brits hurling rocks at his family.
Thank goodness President Obama had the generosity to dignify Morgan Tsvangirai’s recent worldwide begging tour with kindness. Although generally warmly received and described by the German chancellor as a symbol of democracy, the Dutch and others dismissed Zimbabwe’s new prime minister with long lists of his precarious unity government’s manifest shortcomings. From the safety of their London lives, Tsvangirai’s own countrymen booed him when he appealed to them to come home and help him rebuild Zimbabwe. Obama had the grace to highlight Tsvangirai’s personal sacrifices, speaking of his “extraordinary admiration for the courage and the tenacity that the prime minister has shown in navigating through some very difficult political times”, before granting Tsvangirai at least a little bit of money.
Tsvangirai’s courage in trying to work constructively with the tricky, twisted tyrant Mugabe – never mind in staying the political course after being brutally assaulted, losing his beloved wife in suspicious circumstances and enduring the constant torment and often torture of his closest colleagues and supporters – make him a brave man above and beyond the understandable demands for social justice by donor countries.
In risking not only his political reputation but his own neck, Tsvangirai deserves affirmation. He is no Jesus, but a good man in Africa. We have to champion the decent people in our midst if we are to arrest the moral decay that is so prevalent in our communities. After all, had Tsvangirai decided to abandon his punishing service to Zimbabweans, as thee and me might well have done in such dire circumstances, who would be left to deliver that shattered country from evil?
A recent survey in Italy revealed soaring disapproval of leadership behavior in general. Many respondents felt that closer attention to the classic Christian model (notwithstanding legendary sexual abuse by Christian clerics, ahem) would not go amiss among public officials. Our own power brokers, seated at Luthuli House rather than on the ceremonial benches of parliament or even on the country’s presidential thrones, have swerved alarmingly from adulation of the heir apparent during recent elections to openly threatening the deified Zuma.
Earlier this month, Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s secretary-general, declared: “We are the policymakers and the government implements. The government doesn’t lead anymore.” When President Zuma later responded by saying appointments would be based on merit, not loyalty, COSATU denounced his words as “a declaration of war”.
The ongoing vulgarization of South Africa’s leadership modes and manners, not to mention a dramatic decline in the personal ethics of British MPs, among others, has inspired one breathless blogger to advocate as mandatory reading for politicians worldwide a short novel called In His Steps. Apparently the all-time bestseller after the Bible, it begins with a pastor speaking to his congregation. “Ask yourselves, what would Jesus do? – then be guided by your best answer to that question.”
We could modify the question to, what would Madiba do?