Review: 100% Jacob Zuma

AiW Guest Emily Hogg and Benjamin Poore.

In 2006 The New York Times reported that Jacob Zuma’s defence during his trial for rape was rooted in claims he made about the traditions and customs of Zulu culture. The Times wrote: “His accuser was aroused, he said, and ‘in the Zulu culture, you cannot just leave a woman if she is ready.’ To deny her sex, he said, would have been tantamount to rape.” Outside the South Gauteng High Court, meanwhile, a number of those who had gathered to support Zuma were wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “100% Zulu Boy”.

10africa.xlarge1_Zuma_Denis Farrell_Associated Press

Mark Sanders, Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University and student of Zulu, began his January lecture at Queen Mary, University of London by reflecting on how intensely disturbing he found these invocations of Zulu identity. To be a “100% Zulu boy” was, for Zuma’s supporters and detractors respectively, both the solution and the problem. Both sides figured the Zulu boy of Sanders’ title as virile masculinity in its most phallic and unreconstructed form; with, of course, the necessary elision of the female complainant at the centre of the trial.

The Spear - Brett Murray's portrait of Jacob Zuma.

The Spear – Brett Murray’s controversial portrait of Jacob Zuma.

The lecture, “100% Zulu Boy: Judging Jacob Zuma, Obiter Dicta”, sought to amplify the uneasy contradictions that lie at the heart of this cultural politics of 100% authenticity. Sanders described his own attempts, past and present, to become a “100% Zulu boy”, and the association of learning and performing everything under the sign of Zulu with the hope of “doing and making good”. It was performance that mattered for Sanders, recalling as he did an appearance as a Zulu boy in a school production of Ipi Tombi from his boyhood, hoping for “that perfect identity…a hundred out of a hundred.” A powerful identification with the Zulu boy, for Mark Sanders, was about getting “good marks” knowing it also means a “good Mark”. Becoming Zulu for the boy Sanders entails approval and recognition of his virility. Zuma’s trial, and the report the NYT offered, turned this virility on its head and shattered the possibility of doing and making good with prohibited sexual violence.

Sanders’ extraordinary tactic in the course of the lecture was not merely to unpick the intricacies of the juridicial-legal history of rape and adultery trials in colonial and postcolonial case law: more striking was the insistent and hypnotic reading of long passages in Zulu by Sanders himself, a move that disoriented a largely Anglophone audience in interesting ways. The surprise it offered perhaps echoed the surprise offered by the judge in Zuma’s trial, Willem van der Merwe, who unexpectedly offered his closing remarks in Zuma’s native tongue. Sanders found himself resistant to the suggestion that this was merely the show of some secret patriarchal solidarity conspiring against the complainant. Rather, Van der Merwe’s masquerade was precisely that – but one that took the form of a communique to Zuma; by switching into Zulu, Sanders argued, the judge demonstrated that being a Zulu Boy is not a natural, incontestable formation but rather a role to be played.

Outside court, a supporter poses in reference to the pro-Zuma song "Letha Mshini Wami" (Give me my gun).

Outside court, a supporter poses in reference to the pro-Zuma song “Letha Mshini Wami” (Give me my gun).

However Sanders argued that even as the language is in the mouths of its most persuasive, fluent speakers (Zuma spoke in Zulu throughout the trial) the identity described by the name Zulu is a fractured, incomplete one – something acquired, entered into, though also presented contradictorily as solid and homogenous. Drawing on court records and Zulu newspapers, Sanders demonstrated that Zuma’s comments at his trial were rather more complicated than the NYT’s report suggested. According to the court records quoted by Sanders, Zuma said: “I said to myself I know as we grew up and in Zulu culture you do not just leave a woman in that situation because if you do she may even have you arrested and say that you are a rapist.” The fear, located here in Zulu culture, of arrest on an unfair rape charge because of a woman’s anger at not having sex is very different to the idea that not having sex with a woman in such a situation is thought to be ‘tantamount to rape’ in Zulu culture, as the Times reported.

But in Sanders’ reading such comments revealed the fault lines in the “phallic Zulu culture” apparently “exonerated” alongside Zuma himself. In attributing the fear of female vengeance to the lessons he learnt from culture as a child (‘as we grew up’), Zuma allows the teaching of that culture to be opened up to question and to debate. Moreover, Sanders argued, Zulu culture is presented in Zuma’s own words as something which is learnt and something which he did learn, in his youth. There was a point at which, it seems, he was not 100% Zulu Boy. In this way, less complete engagements with Zulu – engagements less certain of their authenticity, engagements like Sanders’ own readings of Zulu – are shown not just to be possible but to be all that is possible, even for Zuma.


Ben poore bioBenjamin Poore is a third-year PhD student in the Department of English, Queen Mary College, University of London, writing an AHRC-funded project on the life of Anglo-Pakistani psychoanalyst Masud Khan. His research explores the importance of modernist culture and criticism in his writing of psychoanalytic theory, and in his project of self-fashioning as an émigré in postwar London. He teaches critical theory and postcolonial literatures at QMUL. Benjamin has presented at conferences in Europe and the United States, and has book chapters and reviews forthcoming in 2013.

EmilyHoggEmily Hogg is in the third year of an AHRC-funded PhD in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London. The project considers international discourses of human rights and African women’s writing. It focuses particularly on the ways the representations of Uganda in global human rights discourse relate to, or are mediated by, diverse forms of women’s writing from the country.


Mark Sanders, Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, delivered a paper entitled “100% Zulu Boy: Judging Jacob Zuma, Obiter Dicta”, at an event hosted by the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, on 23 January 2013.


With thanks from AiW to Andrew Van der Vlies, QMUL.

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3 replies

  1. Great Article. I am looking into Jacob Zuma right now.


  1. Mark Sanders at Queen Mary, University of London (23 Jan 2013) | The London Southern African Studies Network
  2. Mandela, his legacy and its betrayals « Africa in Words

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