STRANGER THAN FICTION

Jacob Zuma’s corruption scandals are getting South Africans to read again

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

South Africa’s small literary market has been lifted by one of the country’s largest political scandals. A new book detailing the “cancerous cabal” that has bankrolled Jacob Zuma’s presidency was bound to cause a sensation, but attempts to have the book banned have made it a rapid best-seller and possibly the country’s most bootlegged book.

In The President’s Keepers investigative journalist Jacques Pauw exposes the shadowy underworld that has allegedly kept Zuma in power. One of those keepers is a security mogul who allegedly paid the sitting president a monthly salary of 1 million rand (about $70,000 a month). The paper trail emerged because it also seems the first citizen failed to pay his taxes.

Painting the picture of a man who seems more mobster than statesman, the book tells the story of the close relationship between the president and a notorious gangster who has miraculously avoided prison. It also casts light on an attempt to set up an illegal cigarette trade with Zuma’s blessing, and links to a controversial cigarette manufacturer seen buying campaign paraphernalia the presidential campaign of Zuma’s former wife and potential successor Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

While nothing shocks South Africans anymore, Pauw’s claims were boosted by the State Security Agency’s attempts to have the book recalled on Nov. 3, serving the publisher with a cease-and-desist letter late on a Friday afternoon. The South African Revenue Service brought more attention to the book with a statement that it would be seeking legal action against the author and the newspaper that published an excerpt of the book over claims that the president was allowed to skip out on his taxes.

Tactics to have the book banned seemed like confirmation that the president had something to hide. The book flew off the shelves, selling out by the weekend. As more copies were ordered from the press, the country’s largest bookseller, Exclusive Books, vowed to keep selling. In South Africa, 5,000 books sold is considered a success, at a reported 15,000 new orders this week, Pauw’s book is a runaway success.

Then PDF versions began circulating on WhatsApp, prompting Pauw, an award-winning journalist, to ask readers to buy the book instead. It wasn’t about the sales stats or profits, he said, but rather in support of journalism and the legal woes he would inevitably face for going up against the president. NB Publishers in turn published their response to the state security agencies lawyers on Nov. 6, further politicizing the book itself.

Zuma’s presidency has devolved into a tome of political scandals, each one more shocking than the last. If all the non-fiction written about Zuma is to be believed, South Africa’s political landscape reads like a dystopian novel and books trying to make sense of this world routinely do well. For instance, about 600 people showed up for what would normally have been an intimate launch of the biography of the woman who accused Zuma of rape. The record-breaking success of The President’s Keepers illustrates that the politics of the day have become stranger than fiction.

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