A meme is an infectious chunk of information or prejudice that tells people what to think about subjects which they do not have the time, inclination or courage to weigh up for themselves. You can tell that a meme has become particularly virulent when it shows up as media cliché. Former president Thabo Mbeki, for example, is now memetically sealed as an aloof, pipe-smoking intellectual who coddled Robert Mugabe and whose apostasy on AIDS sent hundreds of thousands to a needlessly premature death.
Memes about Jacob Zuma and what his presidency means for the future of South Africa remain, mercifully, in a state of flux. It is still an open question which ones will come to dominate in the minds of northern thought leaders.
Easily the most seductive are those against which northern immune systems are already weak. The default master narrative has South Africa reverting, after the Golden Age of Mandela and the Silver Age of Mbeki, to what is assumed to be the brutish African norm. Memes that seem to support that storyline are highly infectious.
The contagion has long been rampant among the zombified racists who clog online comment facilities, which may not be a bad thing. Their ravings can make for a good vaccine. People who care for the good opinion of mankind do not generally want to be seen in their company.
That said, the slime that has been caked on Zuma in the course of the ANC succession struggle and then the election does take some explaining. It can be done, but it doesn’t really help to slam as colonialists those who continue to demand an explanation. As annoying as BBC attack-dog John Humphrys (as the Guardian’s new SA correspondent called him on Twitter) can be, the real trend in trendsetting Western media has been favourable to Zuma and the country’s prospects with him in charge. This needs careful nurturing.
The Financial Times’ foreign editor and former Johannesburg bureau chief Alec Russell has been painting an attractive picture of Zuma while pushing his new book, Bring Me My Machine Gun, in the US, planting the meme that JZ could turn out to be SA’s Ronald Reagan, a charismatic and successful leader underestimated by all the bien pensants who insisted he was an uneducated dolt.
Zuma’s polygamy and leopard skins may play nicely to the prejudices of readers of London’s Daily Mail, but, other than the aspects that have to do gender relations, his traditionalism could easily come to be seen as a strength, both on a human level and as informing his leadership style.
The Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard, for example, may have done Zuma a world of good when she quoted his “close friend”, American businessman Charles Tawil. In a memorable anecdote, Tawil recalled their being together at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Zuma took a call on his cell phone and spent 15 minutes talking in isiZulu. Apologising for the interruption, he told his friend: “‘I was talking with my brother in Nkandla, and he was talking about his cow, that she had some rash. And in my culture, he’s my big brother, so I must listen to him and show him respect. ”
Brulliard then quoted Roelf Meyer: “He has an inclusive approach, a collective decision-making approach, and an approach towards trying to unite people. . . . Some of those characteristics remind me of Nelson Mandela. My prediction is that after a year, people will look back and say this was a change for the better for this country.”
Such memes remain fragile. Whether they become dominant depends to a great extent the encouragement other, less positive, ones receive as Zuma forms his new administration. Corruption and croneyism memes could stop the reappraisal dead in its tracks.
At that point, the meme propounded in the current Newsweek that “South Africa will survive Zuma” will come in handy. Sasha Polakow-Suransky of Foreign Affairs magazine and Eusebius McKaiser of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, contend memorably: “SA is still on track to becoming a stable, liberal democracy…SA’s next president may be no Mandela. But SA won’t let him become another Robert Mugabe.”