Early in February, former South African president Jacob Zuma issued a statement defying a Constitutional Court decision compelling him to appear before the judicial commission probing grand corruption in South Africa. He used a war metaphor to explain why he would be a victim if he adhered to the court’s decision.
The commission had asked the court to issue an order forcing him to testify before it. Zuma is central to the work of the commission, as the allegations that the state had been captured for private benefit happened during his tenure, which stretched from May 2009 to January 2018. He has also been implicated by witnesses at the commission as being complicit in the corruption.
The commission sought the intervention of the apex court after Zuma had walked out after his application that its chairperson, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, recuse himself was dismissed in November 2020. The court ruled that he should cooperate with the commission.
Zuma’s defense against the commission is based on metaphorical reasoning. Understanding his key metaphor provides insight into his rhetorical strategy. He has complained that the
Constitutional Court also mimics the posture of the commission … by suspending my Constitutional rights rendering me completely defenseless against the commission.
To be defenseless presupposes that someone else is waging war against you.
Metaphors are not used for their own sake in politics, but as part of a strategy to persuade a particular audience to accept a point of view, and act accordingly. Zuma clearly succeeds in persuading his loyalists to continue to “defend” him. Simultaneously, he uses it as a shield against being held accountable.
The metaphorical language is key to understanding these two contradictory consequences.
We have researched the language of South African political propaganda as well as the metaphors used by post-apartheid South African presidents. Drawing on this analysis, we concentrate on Zuma’s two main statements about the commission: the verbal statement when he appeared before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on 15 July 2019, and his written statement on 1 February 2021.
His verbal statement is his most comprehensive personal account before the commission, and therefore consists of more natural and spontaneous speech than a formal, written account. We have used this statement alongside his Feb. 1 statement, which focuses directly on the commission.
Jacob Zuma’s wars
Zuma speaks of war in its literal and metaphorical senses. His “narrative” starts with an actual war, the armed struggle for liberation against the apartheid government. When the war ended, the original goal was achieved and the African National Congress (ANC) was elected as the governing party.
Warfare is in general an important metaphor in political vocabulary and it is, therefore, not a surprise that it is an important metaphor in the political vocabulary of the ANC and other parties. For example, former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki once called on South Africans to wage war against the enemies of poverty and hunger, or gender-based violence, racism, sexism and xenophobia. They were calling on South Africans to be warriors, to fight with common purpose to defeat these metaphorical enemies.
Zuma’s purpose is different. As we show in our research, Linking the dots: metaphors in the narrative of self-justification by former president Zuma, which will be published in the journal Language Matters later this year, he uses warfare metaphors to defend himself and persuade his supporters to continue supporting him.
He presents himself as the ultimate warrior for the economic liberation of the poor. In his oral presentation to the commission in 2019, and his public statement on 1 February 2021, he identifies his “stance on the transformation of this country and its economy” as the reason why he is the “target” of a campaign of “propaganda, vilification and falsified claims.”
The parallels are too similar to ignore given that Sobukwe was specifically targeted for his ideological stance on liberation. I on the other hand am the target of propaganda, vilification, and falsified claims against me for my stance on the transformation of this country and its economy.
Zuma’s defiant stance reached a crescendo when he proclaimed:
I do not fear being arrested, I do not fear being convicted nor do I fear being incarcerated. I joined the struggle against the racist apartheid government and the unjust oppression of black people by whites in the country at a very young age.
His language openly suggests that the liberation struggle and his current struggle are equally concrete and historical, pretending that there is nothing metaphorical in his narrative of self defense.
Hiding behind metaphors
The metaphor of warfare allows the former president to construct a version of reality that suits his purposes. He highlights incidents that make sense to him and his supporters as evidence of his opponents’ activities. Just like the apartheid security apparatus targeted him and other ANC operatives, his modern day “enemies”—security agencies, “white monopoly capital,” the commission and Constitutional Court—target him as a part of their war against him.
At the same time, the metaphor of warfare, with its familiar role definitions, allows Zuma to evade those aspects of reality that do not fit the narrative.
He is the good warrior for the cause of those in poverty. The idea that he and his associates would do anything to harm the cause of “radical economic transformation”, does not fit his narrative. His warfare metaphor simply offers no room for conflicting facts or the possibility that he is prosecuted due to alleged violations of the law or the constitution. Like the lonely hero on stage at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, Zuma told Justice Zondo in July 2019:
Zuma must go. What has he done? Nobody can tell. He’s corrupt. What has he done? Nothing.
This “nothing” is the point—in terms of the warfare metaphor—that paints him in the defenseless victim role. There is no rhetorical room for evidence of alleged wrongdoing. Allegations and evidence of wrongdoing are, therefore, strategically excluded from consideration.
Zuma’s narrative of self defense begins with his role in the literal liberation struggle, when he was an actual soldier and freedom fighter. He extends the language of warfare into the present, as a metaphor to make sense of his current persecution. Because the language of warfare is rooted in actual, concrete events, it seems coherent and reliable enough to make it credible and persuasive.
The former president’s metaphorical interpretation of reality excludes the possibility that evidence of his alleged wrongdoing can be incorporated into the same narrative: such evidence must, therefore, be rejected, or be reinterpreted, as falsehoods concocted by his opponents.
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