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7Jacob Zuma’s shamelessness:
conspicuous consumption,
politicsand Religion
In the media, South Africa’s ex-President Jacob Zuma has long been portrayed as a man
who lives beyond his means and who has difficulties reining in his excessive desires.
A succession of media exposés have laid bare his massive debts, his sexual appetites,
the financial burden of four (current) wives and 22 children accustomed to the high
life1 (Sowetan Live 2016; Madisa 2016), and the family’s tastes in expensive cars (Van
Onselen 2012a). e media has also been fascinated by the presidential family’s ‘big fat’
weddings and the close ties that Zuma has with the (extravagant) Swazi and Zulu royal
houses (Huigen 2017).
Apart from his private extravagances, the ex-president was also profligate with the
public purse while in office. By 2012, journalist Gareth van Onselen estimated that
the state allowances for Jacob Zuma and his dependents were costing the taxpayer half
a billion rand a year, significantly more than the amounts spent by the abo Mbeki
and Nelson Mandela presidencies. While much of the increase could be attributed to
the size of Zuma’s polygamous family, his presidency saw a significant increase in claims
for VIP transport, luxury helicopter rides, large motorcades and top-line private cars.2
Similarly, his salary rocketed, making him one of the top ten best-paid politicians in the
world (Van Onselen 2012a). During his presidency, the state was pressured to acquire
a R4-billion presidential jet when his security detail had recommended a R150-million
Boeing. Both his official and private residences were ‘upgraded’ far beyond the neces-
sary security improvements. Zuma’s official residences have reportedly been adorned
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
with new chandeliers, sprawling dressing rooms, at least one sauna and a steam room
(Steenkamp 2011). His private ‘compound’ in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, has seen the
installation of a large swimming pool, a helipad, a visitors’ centre, a private military
hospital, a parking lot and guest houses (Madonsela 2014). As the media pointed out,
these expenditures were eight times more than what was spent on Mandelas two private
homes and almost 18 times more than was spent on Mbeki’s home (Pillay 2013). e
Public Protector described it as ‘opulence on a grand scale’ (Madonsela 2014).
As a number of journalists suggested, the president’s official salary3 and his allow-
ances from the state did not allow for his or his family’s lavish lifestyle – especially the
extravagant weddings, parties and his adult children’s luxury cars and designer clothes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Zuma has faced various fraud and corruption investigations,
with a 2016 report from the Public Protector (Madonsela 2016) and a string of leaked
emails in 2017 detailing the extent to which the state had been ‘captured’ by the super-
rich Gupta family to whom Zuma, and his family, had been indebted in one way or
another. While he has avoided any convictions to date, open speculations about the
ex-president’s moral compromises abound. Beyond the usual outrages about corrupt
leadership, greed and extreme personal indulgence in a country where the majority
of people live in poverty, a number of commentators have been dumbfounded by
Zuma’s inability to be ‘shamed’ (Madia & Evans 2016; Malala 2016; McKaiser 2017;
Mulholland 2016; Williams 2016). ey have repeatedly pointed out that Zuma is
unapologetic about his lavish lifestyle and the probable corrupt relationships that have
enabled it.
Instead of shame, Zumas public utterances have consistently been defiant. Boasting
about God’s divine support, he has on numerous occasions insisted that his treatment
in the media and by criminal prosecutors was the result of a dark plot by his enemies to
undermine his leadership and derail his (deserved) good fortune. Even after the African
National Congress (ANC) ousted him as president in February 2018, Zuma trumpeted
his revolutionary work while in office (Harper & Bendile 2018). It would be easy to
dismiss Zuma’s claims and their embrace by sycophantic party members and certain
Christian leaders as mere political opportunism. Indeed, many of Zumas political sup-
porters have been implicated in the scandals that have marred his presidency while
most of the churches that have celebrated Zuma’s ‘blessings’ have seen their political
stars rise under his leadership (Van Wyk 2015: 136). However, harder to explain has
been the enthusiasm with which many poor South African Christians have echoed
Zuma’s moral claims and celebrated his (ill-gotten) riches.
In the literature, such grassroots acquiescence or adulation of a morally suspect polit-
ical leader has been explained in terms of the ‘politics of the belly’ (Bayart 1989), the
zombification that attends neoliberal capitalism (Comaroff & Comaroff 2001) and, in
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Conspicuous Consumption in Africa
South Africa, as a result of the racialised politicisation of economic aspiration (Posel
2013; Posel 2014). In this chapter, I add to that body of work by paying attention
to the specifically Neo-Pentecostal public context within which African leaders (and
ex-leaders), such as Jacob Zuma, not only frame but also find support for their appar-
ently ‘shameless’ conspicuous consumption. In e eory of the Leisure Class [2003],
orstein Veblen focused on the leisure class in America rather than on African leaders,
but his analytical emphasis on honour and the social/moral valence of wealth take us
beyond well-trodden political-economic analyses. At the same time, his deep antipathy
to ‘wasteful expenditure’ by the leisure class and his discomfort with their ‘pecuniary’
rituals also lays bare a Judeo-Christian tradition that has long informed a critique of
conspicuous consumption – and of Neo-Pentecostalism.
a dishonouRable man
According to Graeber (2011), one of the moral organising principles of capitalism is
the expectation that someone will be shamed by their debt – and that they will settle it
themselves. is principle has some purchase in South Africa – even among politicians.
Within the ANC, Zuma’s extravagant lifestyle has apparently long been a source of
worry and embarrassment to his comrades. According to a report by KPMG auditors,
Mandela and the ANC treasurer had already in 1998 ‘disciplined’ Zuma over his finan-
cial affairs (Smith 2012). At the time, Zuma had apparently spent far more than he
earned, repeatedly exceeded his bank overdraft, bought property and cars on credit, and
continuously defaulted on his debt (Bauer 2012). In 2000, Mandela apparently gave
Zuma R1 million because he worried that Zuma’s continuing financial troubles would
open him up to graft – and dishonour for the ANC (Smith 2012). Mandelas help came
a year after Patricia de Lille, a member of parliament for the Pan African Congress,
alleged that Zuma had received kickbacks from a controversial multi-billion rand arms
deal then in progress.4 is help did not put Zuma beyond his creditors’ demands. In
2001, the media reported that Zuma had tried to quash a criminal investigation into
the actions of Pieter Rootman who had allegedly used stolen donor funds to help settle
Zuma’s considerable debts.5 A string of sensational fraud and corruption cases against
Zuma’s allies revealed that he had been receiving regular payments from a number
of benefactors for anything from ‘R10 car-washes to school fees and bond payments’
(Williams 2016). His financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, had given Zuma R4 million for
‘his children’s education and upkeep’ while he channeled a further R7 million to Zuma
from various benefactors and businesses hoping to benefit from his ties to the state
(Evans, Shamase & Brümmer 2012). Shaiks eventual conviction on charges of corrup-
tion and fraud saw Zuma dismissed as vice president in 2005. At the time, the Mail &
Guardian (2005) reported that Zumas bank accounts were overdrawn by more than
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
R400 000 – this despite a generous state salary, state allowances for living costs and gen-
erous ‘help’ from his various friends. After two years in the political wilderness, Jacob
Zuma was elected as the head of the ANC and, in the 2009 general election, as presi-
dent of the country. He was barely in office before the media started to murmur about
the opulent ‘security upgrades’ at his Nkandla private residence (Rossouw 2009). After
a number of complaints, the public protector launched an official investigation. e
resulting report, entitled ‘Secure in Comfort’ (Madonsela 2014), was scathing about
the private benefits that accrued to Zuma from the R246 million spent on Nkandla and
recommended that he pay back some of the money.6 After much political manoeuvring
and a constitutional court order, Zuma finally paid back R7.8 million to the state. e
media immediately speculated that the Gupta family was the most likely source of this
payment (Williams 2016).
Apart from his shameful financial affairs, Zuma’s private life evinced various
extra- marital affairs (Pillay 2010), illegitimate children (Chidester 2012:150–151),
inappropriate sexual relationships with his friends’ daughters (Larson 2010) and disloy-
alty to friends who had fallen on hard times – usually because of their association with
him (Govender 2016). Most disgracefully, a 31-year-old family friend called ‘Kwezi’7
accused him of rape. Zuma claimed that the sex was consensual and that a post-coital
shower protected him from contracting HIV. Although he was acquitted of the charges,
cartoonists continued to reference his shameful conduct.8
With Zuma’s moral failings stacking up in public, more of his critics used the language
of shame and honour to pressure the ANC to replace him with a less compromised can-
didate (Madia & Evans 2016). At the forefront of those clamouring for his resignation
using this tactic were a group of ANC veterans (Nhlabati 2016), various civil society
groups, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the National Religious
Leaders’ Council (NRLC) (Katz 2016; Stone 2017). At their various protest marches
and in public pronouncements, these organisations negatively compared Zuma with
honourable men such as Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada (Stone 2017). And where he
was compared to other politicians who had similarly been caught out in morally com-
promising positions, such as Pallo Jordan,9 critics pointed out that unlike Zuma, these
men had the ‘decency’ to be ‘ashamed of [themselves]’ (McKaiser 2017).
Veblen on honouR, shame and Religion
Veblen (2003) would not have been surprised by the weight that Zumas critics attached
to honour in their assessment of his fitness to be president. For Veblen (2003: 25),
honour and its corollary ‘pecuniary emulation’ were at the heart of social evolution,
class differentiation and conspicuous consumption. However, unlike the mobilisation
of the idea of honour by Zuma’s critics, Veblen’s definition of honour had little to do
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Conspicuous Consumption in Africa
with moral rectitude and was much closer to Nietzsche’s (1882) will to power. Veblen
postulated that the aggressive struggle for honour between men gradually evolved into
a system of property ownership where conspicuously displayed wealth gained ‘utility as
a honorific evidence of the owner’s prepotence [power]’ (Veblen 2003: 18). Wealth also
allowed men to avoid debasing productive work in favour of (wasteful) leisure pursuits,
again adding to their status (Veblen 2003: 25–77). As an organising societal principle,
the ‘meritoriousness of wealth’ (Veblen 2003: 118) saw everyone participating in the
pursuit and recognition of honour through the ‘pecuniary emulation’ of consumption
standards around them (Veblen 2003: 70–77).
If we overlook the racist and social evolutionary aspects of Veblens theory (Veblen
2003: 126–182), his thesis on the meritoriousness of wealth was also used to explain
why rich men who committed fraud to maintain their quality of life were often treated
sympathetically while a common thief was more likely to be accused of ‘moral turpi-
tude’ (Veblen 2003: 79–80). Money, and the power it implies, served as a buffer against
the excesses of shame.
e other part of Veblen’s thesis that bears some discussion is the assertion that even
the poorest of the poor are included in a status hierarchy and compete for honour/
status through conspicuous consumption. A number of authors have pointed out that,
historically, the South African ‘poor’ have been voracious and conspicuous consumers
and that local black elites have long set themselves apart through their highly fashion-
able and opulent garb (Gardiner 1836; Hannerz 1994; Posel 2010). While successive
governments (Ross 1990; Posel 2010) and religious authorities (Comaroff 1996:
19–38) tried to rein in black conspicuous consumption, commentators have long been
fascinated by its hyperbolic examples among the elite – and by the lack of outrage about
it on behalf of the poor (Huigen 2017; Posel 2014: 44–48). In post-apartheid South
Africa, poor black people often interpret the affluence and material sophistication of
political leaders as a mark of aspiration (Posel 2013: 70–2). For their part, leaders
such as Julius Malema defend their extravagances as an ‘effective weapon against the
tenacious economic domination of the “[w]hite minority”’ (Posel 2014: 46).
Undoubtedly, the racial politics of conspicuous consumption have played a role in
the support of Jacob Zumas excesses by his poor followers. But so too has Zumas
reassertion of patriarchal Zulu ‘traditionalism’ (see Hunter 2011), masculinity (Suttner
2009), and authoritarianism (Hamilton 2010). Zuma’s ability to resonate with many
poor South Africans has also been ascribed to his ability to ‘connect the personal and
the political’ in ways that address South Africas gendered crisis of social reproduction
(Hunter 2011) and that rebel against authoritarian management (Cuthbertson 2007),
neoliberalism (Hunter 2011) and an alienating technocracy (Gunner 2009). While the
gendered, ethnic, economic and political dimensions of Zuma’s public support have
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
been analysed, relatively little academic attention has been paid to its explicitly religious
dimensions. In a rare focus on this neglected part of Zumas reign, Gerald West (n.d.:
1–24; cf. West 2012) argued that Zuma’s religious utterances followed a post-apartheid
trajectory in which the ANC increasingly inserted ‘religion in the public realm’.
Unlike many contemporary scholars, Veblen (2003: 22) included religion in his
discussion of conspicuous consumption, remarking that those with strong religious
convictions did not see wealth as meritorious and did not participate in the same pecu-
niary drive as their fellows. While the devout often showed constraint at an individual
level, this was seldom the case at the institutional level, as temples and ritual para-
phernalia were often marked by their conspicuous opulence (Veblen 2003: 80). is
conspicuous consumption, however, seldom served the comfort of worshippers or those
that held religious office because its pecuniary reputability attached to the divine rather
than to [his] servants (Veblen 2003: 81–2).10 And yet, because they did not spend their
time doing debasing productive work, religious officeholders saw pecuniary gains from
their ‘ennobling’ life of (often austere) leisure (Veblen 2003: 27–37).
Veblen’s approval of religious austerity contrasted with his antipathy to the ostentation
and frivolity of the (wider) leisure class. As Fenton (2012) remarked, his critique ‘hinges
on [the] puritanical enshrinement of labor’ as an ‘expression of morality, and an equally
evangelical denunciation of any activity removed from productive (read: required
for subsistence) labor or its immediate reproduction’ (cf. Adorno 1941: 389–413).
Indeed, Puritans saw hard work and frugality as important consequences of being pre-
destined, and rejected the worldly pursuit of wealth and possessions for their own sake
(Weber 1930).
consuming foR god
Veblen’s Puritanism is certainly at odds with new forms of Christianity that embrace
the so-called prosperity gospel. It is a theology that asserts that believers have a right
to boundless material earthly ‘blessings’ from God but that the realisation or flow of
such blessings in an individual’s life is blocked by evil forces that work through other
people. Churches that preach the prosperity gospel, many of them Neo-Pentecostal
churches (NPCs), generally hold that the world is riven by a spiritual war between God
and Satan in which the latter tries to undermine the earthly establishment of God’s
kingdom, a place of boundless wealth, health and happiness. All humans and spirits
either choose to engage in the war or, through their ignorance of it, become unwitting
instruments in it (Van Wyk 2014: 37–58).
For Christians who believe in the reality of the spiritual war, the rich and powerful
have achieved their blessings through individual spiritual strength and mighty spiritual
intercessions rather than through individual labour. While material possessions mark
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spiritual victories, they also invite jealous spiritual work from enemies that could under-
mine these fortunes. Being ‘blessed’ is thus not a once-off achievement but something
that needs to be continually protected from invisible sources. In this worldview, con-
spicuous consumption is interpreted as a celebration of divine favour and is strongly
encouraged as an act of faith (Van Wyk 2014: 37–58). In the spiritual war, old Christian
concerns about sin and ‘upright’ living pale in comparison to the immediacy of war and
the willingness of brave [men] to face it. It is a theology that makes assertiveness a pre-
requisite of being blessed. Indeed, many NPC members believe that God only favours
those who can defend [his] blessings (Van Wyk 2014: 162).
While the prosperity gospel emphasises God’s boundless blessings, many of its pro-
ponents also fight against those who use dark forces to gain access to power and money.
In South African NPCs, these dark forces are often identified as traditional healers and
witches who work with various witch familiars, such as snakes, mermaids, tokoloshes
(short, hairy tricksters with enormous penises), cats, owls and a range of otherworldly
beings (Van Wyk 2014: 37–58, 145–148, 153). Good Christians fight these forces
through exorcisms, vigils, prayers, sacrifices, fasts, campaigns and spiritual ‘burning’.
Zuma and the neo-pentecostals
Jacob Zuma is well versed in the prosperity gospel. Apart from his longstanding mem-
bership of various NPCs, Zuma was ordained as an honorary pastor in the Full Gospel
Church in 2007 (Munusamy 2013). In the run-up to the April 2009 general elec-
tions, Zuma visited a number of NPCs and preached an NPC message in the Rhema
Bible Church (Mail & Guardian 2009; West nd: 10). Taking the archetypal liberation
theology text of the Israeli exodus from Egypt (West nd: 11), Zuma turned it into a
prosperity gospel message by emphasising Moses’ inspired leadership and its result-
ant prosperous consequences for those he led (Zuma 2009: 1–3). He encouraged his
listeners to use ‘the power of prayer’ (and socio-economic development ventures) to
‘make South Africa a land of milk and honey’ (Zuma 2009: 3). At Easter, Zuma further
raised eyebrows when he eschewed the traditional head of state’s11 visit to the country’s
largest church, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), in order to attend a service at the
International Pentecost Church. From its pulpit, Zuma used biblical verses to make
veiled swipes at his ‘plotting’ enemies (Zuma 2009b).
As president, Zuma increasingly eschewed the critical religious communities of more
mainline churches in favour of NPCs (Van Wyk 2015: 136–7). is became par-
ticularly pronounced after the Nkandla scandal provoked angry reactions and public
protests from some ANC supporters, the SACC, the NRLC and, uncharacteristically,
from the ZCC (Moloto 2014).12 First booed at Mandela’s funeral on 10 December
2013, Zuma’s public appearances on the campaign trail in March 2014 were marred by
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
crowds of heckling ANC supporters (Ngalwa 2014: 4). By December 2014, the ANC’s
spokesperson admitted in a National Executive Council report that there were ‘distant’
relationships between the party and the SACC which was ‘of the view that the ANC
is more comfortable with wealth religion and those who are not critical of the ANC’
(Hunter & Mataboge 2014).
Zuma’s experience at political rallies in 2014 stood in sharp contrast to the welcome
he received at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG)’s Easter cele-
brations. In front of a packed Ellis Park Stadium, Bishop Pires blessed Zuma and his
entourage and gratefully received Zumas praise of the church (Bizcommunity 2014).
As more scandals came to light, the SACC and the NRLC sharpened their critique of
Zuma (Katz 2016). Seemingly unperturbed, Zuma continued to attend mass NPC
meetings where he was warmly welcomed and from whence he could exhort believers
to ‘respect those appointed to lead you’ (eNCA 2016).13 He also called on Christians
to pray for politicians, as ‘Satan is always around trying to derail us’ (Ngoepe 2016).
In 2016, after the Constitutional Court determined that Zuma had failed to uphold
the Constitution and again in 2017 with the Gupta leaks, the NRLC and the SACC
called a meeting with the ANC urging them to compel Zuma to resign (Katz 2016;
Pollitt 2017). ey also found various public platforms to denounce him, organised pub-
lic protests and supported a vote of no confidence against Zuma in Parliament (Pollitt
2017). Piqued, Zuma reminded (these) religious leaders that their role was to ‘pray for
our nation so respect can come back’, not to meddle in politics (e Citizen 2017).
In June 2018, Mazibuyele Emasisweni, a pro-Zuma lobby group made up of promi-
nent NPC leaders and bishops, ‘business bodies’, traditional leaders and taxi operators,
announced that it would launch a new political party to ‘punish’ the ANC for ousting
Zuma as president (Harper & Bendile 2018). While Zuma quickly distanced himself
from the breakaway party, he addressed Mazibuyele members on various occasions,
trumpeting his leading role in the liberation struggle and the economic transformation
his presidency had inaugurated (Harper & Bendile 2018).
pentecostal politics
Apart from his attendance at NPCs and the obvious ways in which their politics dove-
tailed with his (both during and after his presidency), Zuma’s public statements were
often heavily informed by Pentecostal rhetoric and modes of spiritual warfare. His sup-
porters recognised and responded to these performances in a similar register, leading to
an increasingly Pentecostalised public culture (cf. Meyer 2004; Meyer 2015).
Often drawing parallels between him and and the persecuted Jesus, Zuma and his
supporters have long interpreted his legal difficulties in terms far removed from the
rational language of the courts. He and his supporters have made much of the dark
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forces plotting against him – and of his invincibility against this onslaught. Following
the graft investigations against him in 2001, Zuma’s friend and then head of South
Africa’s secret services, Mo Shaik, likened the National Prosecuting Authority to the
biblical Pontius Pilate, who conspired to have Jesus convicted in a Jewish court (Smit
2003). ree years later, as evidence against Zuma mounted in the Schabir Shaik case,
his supporters at the court joined him in singing Awuleth’ Umshini Wami (Bring my
machine [gun]) (Gunner 2008), a stridently defiant anthem befitting the spiritual war-
rior of NPC theology (Van Wyk 2014). When corruption charges were eventually laid
against him, Zuma’s supporters held a prayer vigil outside the courtroom (Mail &
Guardian 2005). In various interviews, Zuma and his supporters complained that the
charges were part of a political plot to destroy his reputation and to stop him from
becoming South Africa’s next president (Mail & Guardian 2005).
When Zuma was charged with rape, a number of his supporters again saw dark forces
conspiring against him, among them, Kwezi’s own mother (Sesant 2008: 371–373;
Tolsi 2006). In an interview with e Sowetan (2006), Zuma said that ‘like Christ’, the
media, and by implication his political opponents, wanted to ‘crucify’ him. He prom-
ised to strike back by appointing two lawyers to investigate his ‘crucifixion by the media
(Mail & Guardian 2006). Zumas spiritual war had obviously struck a chord with his
many supporters who had gathered outside the Johannesburg High Court. One held
up a homemade crucifix bearing a pasted picture of Zuma with outstretched arms ask-
ing: ‘Why are you crucifying Zuma?’ Another poster read, ‘Zuma is Jesus’ (Evans 2006;
Mail & Guardian 2006). e group of mostly women also ‘fell to their knees in prayer
in front of a line of riot policemen posted between them and the court entrance’ (Evans
2006). Zuma’s supporters were elated when he was acquitted of rape and reinstated as
deputy president of the ANC (Monare 2006). For many of his NPC followers, Zuma’s
turn in fortunes could directly be attributed to their efficacious spiritual work at the
courtroom (the ‘strong’ hymns and prayers) and in church.
In late 2007, Judge Herbert Msimang struck the corruption case against Zuma from
the court roll. When a number of opposition parliamentarians crossed the floor to join
the ANC, a jubilant Zuma remarked to the media, ‘at is why we believe we will be
in power forever until the son of man [Jesus] comes back’ (Ngoepe 2016; Van Onselen
2016). A year later, the NPA once again reinstated the charges and again Zumas sup-
porters congregated outside the Supreme Court of Appeal with banners likening him
to Jesus.14 Ace Magashule, the ANC’s provincial leader in the Free State, addressed the
crowds outside in a now-familiar trope, saying that Jacob Zuma was ‘suffering just like
Jesus did. . . Jesus was persecuted. He was called names and betrayed. It’s the same kind
of suffering Mr Zuma has had to bear recently, but he’s still standing strong. He’s not
giving up’ (Cloete 2008; Mail & Guardian 2008). As Zuma’s fortunes plummeted in
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
January 2009, Magashule was again at court to tell supporters, ‘In church they sing that
they will follow Jesus wherever he goes. at’s how we should be about Jacob Zuma
(Van Onselen 2012b).
Zuma’s renewed troubles coincided with the establishment of a breakaway party, the
Congress of the People (Cope), and the desertion of a number of ANC members.
Explicitly referring to the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, Zuma said
of the new party, ‘e people are waiting for the son of man [Jesus] who was on the
donkey. e donkey did not understand it, and thought that the songs of praise were
for him’ (Du Plessis 2008). Magashule contributed with another biblical reference:
‘Jesus had up to 70 disciples, but in the end only 12 remained’ (Cloete 2008). As his
Christian listeners knew, after Jesus’s resurrection, the 12 disciples’ loyalty was rewarded
by spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit.
In 2017, Zuma hit back at ‘church leaders who throw stones’ from his NPC platforms
saying, ‘[e]ven our saviour was facing many challenges. He was the one who felt pain
for us sinners. ey called him names. ey spit on him’ (SABC News 2017). A few
months later, as the motion of no confidence against him was defeated in Parliament,
Zuma crowed to his comrades, ‘You came in your numbers to demonstrate that the
ANC is there, is powerful, is big. It is difficult to defeat the ANC, but you can try’. He
then launched into his signature song, Yinde le ndlela (It’s a long road ahead) (Allison
2017). In the NPCs that Zuma visited, both Yinde le ndlela and his infamous Umshini
wami were repeatedly sung; both appropriate accompaniments to the spiritual war (e.g.
City Press 2014).
Since his first appointment to Parliament, Zuma had repeatedly referred to himself as
‘blessed’ in public and intimated that he would be able to bless others. In a particularly
NPC mode, he recalled his visit to the ‘River Jordan where Jesus was baptised. . . Jericho
and Jerusalem were just across the Dead Sea. So, if I look at anyone, he or she will be
blessed’ (McKinley 2013).15 In NPCs, believers often make pilgrimages to places with
connections to the Old Testament in order to quicken the Holy Spirit and ensure a
flow of blessings into their lives – and into the lives of those they bless (Van Wyk 2014:
157–163; 171–181).
Zuma’s confident Neo-Pentecostal message soon emboldened other ANC members
who held similar beliefs. When the ANC tried to dismiss as mere figurative speech
Zuma’s 2004 claim that the ‘ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back’
(Ngoepe 2016a), Bushbuckridge mayor Milton Morema expanded:
e ANC follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. When Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem
he identified with the poor. at is what the ANC does. Jesus Christ suffered because
he wanted to see people sheltered. e ANC provides Bushbuckridge with houses. Jesus
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Christ would have loved to see people living in healthy situations. e ANC provides
clinics and food parcels. Jesus fought poverty and suffering in his preaching. e ANC
provides grants to stop people from suffering. Like the Pharaohs, God did not support
the apartheid government. at is why they did not last. But God supports this gov-
ernment. It does what Jesus does. It will rule till Jesus comes back. (Van Onselen 2016)
In the next few years, Zuma and his cronies repeatedly asserted that God endorsed the
ANC as the party that would rule ‘until Jesus comes back’ – and that the party’s enemies
would face divine retribution (ANC 2009; Mkhwanazi 2008; Van Onselen 2012; cf.
West nd: 13–14). Zuma articulated this most clearly on 5 February 2011 when he told
supporters in the Eastern Cape that opposition to the ANC was inherently evil and had
damnable consequences:
When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t
vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork
[Satan]. . . who cooks people. . .When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you
are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an
ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven when (Jesus) fetches us we will find
(those in the beyond) wearing black, green and gold. e holy ones belong to the ANC.
(Van Onselen 2012b)
As the ANC’s relationship with old mainline churches soured, more of Zumas allies
publicly embraced the spiritual war against his enemies. In March 2014, Hlaudi
Motsoeneng made headlines when he roped in a few NPC pastors to cast ‘demons’ out
of the public protector’s office (Pillay 2014). Known as Zuma’s enforcer at the public
broadcaster, Motsoeneng also featured in a public protector’s report for awarding irreg-
ular salary hikes for himself and a few favoured underlings, making fraudulent claims
that he possessed a matric certificate, and his disastrous firing of critical staff mem-
bers that cost the broadcaster millions in court settlements. e Pastors of Indigenous
Christian Churches, allied to Motsoeneng, responded to Madonsela’s report by saying
that they were ‘noticing a trend in [Mandonsela’s] reporting that seems to cast asper-
sions on critical persons in the country and thereby poisons the atmosphere’. In order
to ‘clear the atmosphere’, they proceeded to perform a ritual exorcism aimed at the
public protector’s office. Another group, the Friends of Hlaudi Formation, also planned
a night vigil and protest march in Bloemfontein (Pillay 2014).
In 2017, as increasing numbers of Zumas comrades criticised him from within the
ANC, Zuma stressed that only the ‘enemy’ [in NPC circles referring to Satan] benefit-
ted and grew strong from the ANC’s infighting. He also appealed to ANC supporters to
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
appreciate the party’s history in the same way that they appreciated the Bible (Whittles
& Sigauqwe 2017).
In this increasingly Pentecostalised public space where spiritual warfare comple-
mented politics, Desmond Tutu warned the Zuma-led government that he would pray
for their demise: ‘Like I warned the Nationalists. . . One day, we will start praying for
the defeat of the ANC Government. . . You are disgraceful. . .You are behaving in a way
that is totally at variance with the things for which we stood’ (Pollitt 2017).
e Pentecostalisation of politics also infected the ANC’s political opponents. In the sec-
ond week of August 2014, news broke online that two mermaids had been killed in Zumas
controversial ‘fire pool’16 at Nkandla and that their bodies had been taken to a research
facility in Durban (Anim van Wyk 2014). Originating from Nigeria, the story found enor-
mous traction on the Economic Freedom Front (EFF)’s supporter website where many
thousands of people viewed the pictures of two female figures with snake-like tails lying
on a dissecting table. YouTube videos quickly sprang up with live ‘proof ’ of the mermaids’
existence.17 e EFF site immediately accused Zuma of witchcraft, with Julius Malema
quoted as saying that Zuma was ‘using the mermaids to prevent him from losing his place
in leadership’ (Anim van Wyk 2014). Commentators asked why Malema was ‘so against
President Jacob Zuma. . . He is jealous or what?’ and also: ‘It might b tru wat malema s
sayin abwt zuma, phela he ddnt go 2 skl he might hv gotten dis leadership thru doz mer-
maids’ [It might be true what Malema is saying about Zuma because he didn’t go to school
so he might have gotten his leadership through those mermaids, i.e. through dark forces].18
Even in the mainstream print media, journalists started to publish sensational stories
that hinted at Zuma’s extraordinary spiritual powers. On 4–5 September 2015, Zuma
attended the annual reed dance ceremony at the behest of the Zulu King Goodwill
Zwelithini. According to front-page newspaper reports, among them e Star newspa-
per, the attending maidens started to hallucinate, cry and roll on the floor on the Friday
night, but despite the work of religious leaders, ‘evil spirits’ possessed a large group of
the girls. Apparently hearing ‘strange voices’, the girls rushed towards the VIP enclosure
where Zuma was sitting. His bodyguards immediately whisked him away but once
order was restored, the king scolded the maidens saying, ‘ere are some of you who
came here with evil spirits to spoil this event’ (Hans & Ntsele 2015: 1). In Pentecostal
circles, the event could have signified Zumas access to the Holy Spirit (in whose pres-
ence evil spirits often manifest) or shown his kinship to the spirits that tormented the
young women. e journalists left that judgement to their readers.
Jacob Zumas detractors have long been outraged at the ‘shameless’ ways in which he
has greedily flaunted wealth for which he did not work and showed defiance in the
face of various criminal charges. Zuma’s shamelessness has presented a conundrum
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Conspicuous Consumption in Africa
for many scholars who have tried to explain his continued support among poor South
Africans. By rights, they have implied, these citizens should have been outraged by his
private extravagance, profligacy with the public purse and with his various brushes with
the law. While academics have looked at the gendered, ethnic, economic and political
dimensions of Zuma’s public support, few have taken the religious dimensions of it
seriously. A number of critics dismissed his assertions of divine favour when matters
went his way and dark plots when they did not as mere political populism – another
shameless tactic to avoid taking responsibility for his supposed moral decrepitude. e
dismissal of the religious dimensions of Zuma’s public support has been especially nota-
ble given that ‘[q]uite where ANC politics begins and private religious convictions end
has always been a difficult line to draw when it comes to the ANC President’, as one
commentator noted (van Onselen 2012b).
A closer look at Neo-Pentecostal theology, and especially its prosperity gospel and
spiritual warfare tenets, offers deeper insight into Zuma’s continued support and his
refusal to be ‘shamed’. While I make no judgements about Zuma’s personal com-
mitment to Neo-Pentecostal values, I show that NPC members recognise in Zumas
reckless spending behaviour, his uncompromising fight against dark ‘enemies’ and his
invincibility the marks of a ‘blessed’ man. A very specific NPC religious ethic can be
recognised in Zuma’s unapologetic conspicuous consumption and the ways in which
he and his supporters have reacted to his travails. Unlike the Puritan productionist
ethic that informed Veblen’s critique of conspicuous consumption, the NPC ethic is
consumerist in its focus. It is an ethic that demands of its subscribers that they consume
conspicuously and without ‘shame’ as part of their spiritual warfare. In contrast to his
predecessors, Zuma has consistently exceeded his generous state allowances for travel,
accommodation and security in favour of more luxurious and conspicuous options,
while his private extravagances – the ‘big fat weddings’, parties and designer clothes
for family members not covered by state allowances – are well known (Huigen 2017).
When his frequent debts and murky debtors were exposed, Zuma was not shamed.
Instead, he and his supporters attacked the dark enemies that were conspiring to under-
mine his deserved good fortune.
As Zuma increasingly fudged the lines between his political and spiritual struggles,
and publicly allied with NPCs rather than mainline churches, his supporters and fel-
low politicians responded in increasingly Pentecostal ways. ey sympathised with his
‘persecution’ and recognised in it the dark work of invisible forces and evil conspirators.
Zuma’s detractors were increasingly also pulled into this Pentecostalising public space.
Zuma’s public life has much in common with other flamboyant political leaders and
former leaders on the continent who have publicly declared their membership, leader-
ship or support of Pentecostal churches, including Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
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Jacob Zuma’s Shamelessness: Conspicuous Consumption, Politicsand Religion
of Equatorial Guinea, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Jerry Rawlings in Ghana (Gifford
1998: 57–180), José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Armando Emilio Guebuza of
Mozambique, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and Daniel Arap Moi and his suc-
cessors Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga in Kenya (Gifford 2009). Noting the close
alliance between some African leaders and NPCs, Gifford (2009: 215) has stated that
this ‘domesticated Christianity’ is not ‘concerned with a renewed order or any “new
Jerusalem”’ (Gifford 1998: 339). Instead, Neo-Pentecostalism has emboldened ‘shame-
less’ men vying for power to celebrate their conspicuous consumption and political
invincibility as scores of followers aspire to similar feats of spiritual accomplishment.
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1 In 2018, the Zuma family announced the birth of his 23rd child and his engagement to a fifth wife
(Cilliers 2018).
2 Whereas the state reimbursed 50 per cent of the cost of private cars under Mbeki and Mandela, it
upped this to 70 per cent for Zuma (Van Onselen 2012a).
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3 In March 2016, President Zuma’s ocial salary increased to R2.7 million per year (https://
4 See, accessed 1 November 2016.
5 See,
accessed 1 November 2016.
6 The final report, ‘Secure in comfort’, was published on 19 March 2014, barely two months before
the general elections.
7 The media gave Zuma’s victim a pseudonym to protect her identity after his supporters publically
attacked her in front of the courtroom and threatened her life.
8 After the rape trail, South Africa’s most famous cartoonist, Zapiro, drew a shower on Zuma’s head,
attaching and detaching it as a comment on his behavior at various stages in his political career.
9 Pallo Jordan, an ANC stalwart and liberation hero, went into self-imposed exile when he was
caught out for pretending to have a PhD when he had no formal tertiary qualifications (McKaiser
10 In cases where religious oceholders served the divinity as a ‘consort’, however, they vicariously
consumed such worldly goods on [his] behalf (Veblen 2003: 81–82).
11 Although Zuma had not been elected as President yet, he was the ANC’s only candidate and no
observers expected the party to lose the election.
12 In an extremely rare public address about politics, Bishop Lekganyane asked members of the ZCC
at the church’s annual Easter celebrations to pray for ‘the wisdom to elect leaders...who do not
confuse public funds with theirs’ (Moloto 2014).
13 He attended the UCKG’s 2015, 2016 and 2017 Easter Friday celebrations (SABC 2017) and spent
his Easter Sundays at churches like the Twelve Apostles’ Church in Christ (TACC) (The Presidency
14 See,
23-03-2009 07:16 PM comment. Accessed 16 November 2016.
15 NPC pastors often speak in a joking manner, not to belie the truth of their sermons but as a feature
of a specific Christian ‘style’.
16 The Public Protector described Zuma’s swimming pool as a ‘questionable security renovation’ after
his allies insisted that it was a fire pool.
17 Accessed 16 November 2016.
18 See
mermaids-found-in-nkandlas-fire-pool/. Accessed 16 November 2016.
c07.indd 132 12/7/2018 5:11:46 PM
... [124][125][126][127][128] They can be a response to the pressures of consumerist advertising, including the promotion of consumer credit, 129 or to neo-Pentecostal religious convictions. 130 They can reflect an aspiration to recognition or status, framed by consumption. 69,123,[131][132][133] Or they can simply be the consequence of the easing of apartheidera restrictions on the opportunities facing black South Africans, i.e. to 'freedom' 51,134 or 'a realization of citizenship' and 'an assertion of racial pride'. ...
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... He encouraged his listeners to use 'the power of prayer' (and socio-economic development ventures) to 'make South Africa a land of milk and honey'. (Zuma 2009, Van Wyk 2019a West underlines, in turn, a significant nuance in Zuma's approach to different aspects of the church's participation in the public domain. Though Zuma listed in his speech five areas of cooperation, namely health, education, rural development, the fight against crime, and the creation of "decent jobs," he discussed only the first four while downplaying the national priority for decent work. ...
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Through the dialogue between an emerging pan-Africanist political scholar and a Christian theologian, this study interrogates key aspects of the deployment of Christianity in the public domain under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. After giving an overview of Zuma’s controversial public career, the article focuses on the role of religion and culture in Zuma’s political demagogy, and particularly on his deployment of the Pentecostalized public culture. A “product” of the ANC’s moral absolutism which got out of control, Zuma can be seen—it is argued—as an emblem of the entanglement of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity and politics in South Africa post-1994, and perhaps as a part of a broader global trend toward religious-populist politics.
This essay explores the conditions of possibility for the critique of the new illiberalism exemplified by leaders such as Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma. It proposes three hypotheses. The first is that corruption is more than just a failure of the Rule of Law, but is also its innermost possibility and end result. The second is that the new illiberalism presupposes the sublation of a certain tradition of critique (focused on the practices of unmasking and transparency). The third is that critique today needs the courage to face a “giddy world.”
This study examines what happens to pharmaceutical products after they have been provided, purchased, consumed and discarded. Based on an archive of medical materials, constituted over three years of collecting waste in public sites around South Africa’s Eastern Cape, I analyse the uses of these products in relation to two key developments in post-apartheid history: new forms of healthcare provision and consumption; and the diversity of formal, adaptive and illicit uses of pharmaceuticals. I highlight the example of the opioid analgesic – codeine – among the most accessible and widely abused pain-killers in South Africa’s pharmaceutical compendium. Through comparing local instances of codeine abuse, I draw historical connections between current and past uses of proprietary (‘over-the-counter’) medicines. The ‘pharmatrash’ in this study is the product of global developments: modern scientific research, its technological and commercial applications, and the expansion of the pharmaceutical market in the twentieth century. These materials are also resonant of national developments: the democratisation of healthcare, the burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases, and patterns of material acquisition and consumption. This article explores the social and political meanings of this ‘detritus of democracy’ in contemporary South Africa.
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Top Billing is a South African lifestyle show, aired by the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The show promotes the “good life,” covering the lifestyles of wealthy South Africans. Segments on mansions and especially weddings are the most popular parts of Top Billing. Over the past six years, however, ANC politicians who occupy positions in government and their associates have featured on the show. By analysing inserts on weddings in which they feature, this article shows how these actors participate in what is collectively imagined and practiced as the “good life” in South Africa, shedding light on the current nature of the post-apartheid state and its actors and practices of power. The article argues that apart from working for a bureaucratic state that manages the precarious social conditions of South Africans, its actors seem to focus on imagining, fashioning and performing the good life. In particular, state actors’ good life is performed through tropes of “royalty” and “tradition,” “order” and the narrative of “humble beginnings,” blending its aesthetic motifs and practices in creative ways. From this, I deduce the power of the ANC-Zuma faction and its understandings of Zulu elite culture.
Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that 5,000 years ago, during the beginning of the agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems. It is in this era, Graeber shows, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. With the passage of time, however, virtual credit money was replaced by gold and silver coins—and the system as a whole began to decline. Interest rates spiked and the indebted became slaves. And the system perpetuated itself with tremendously violent consequences, with only the rare intervention of kings and churches keeping the system from spiraling out of control. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.
Julius Malema has been one of the most prominent and controversial public figures in post apartheid South Africa. This article examines his impact within the post apartheid public sphere as a space of spectacle. Working with a notion of the public sphere as constituted through a hybrid of rational and affective modes of communication, the article shows how a politics of spectacle articulated commercial and cultural changes in the country's mass media after 1994. This confluence shaped Malema's public persona and impact on the terms of public debate during his tenure as president of the ANC Youth League. The angry, unruly bad boy of post apartheid politics, Malema's racial populism provoked garrulous public talk, often with far more heat than light, and traversed by racist invective that the earlier years of public dialogue had largely held at bay; yet he also exposed the force of old and emergent fault lines in the new social order more directly and acutely than many others have done. I argue that, symbolically, Malema entered the public sphere as a counterpoint to Nelson Mandela unsettling the iconography of non racialism, reasserting an angry and confrontational version of race that reinstated the spectre of violent conflagration that Mandela's 'miracle' held at bay.
Wild Religion is a wild ride through recent South African history from the advent of democracy in 1994 to the euphoria of the football World Cup in 2010. In the context of South Africa's political journey and religious diversity, David Chidester explores African indigenous religious heritage with a difference. As the spiritual dimension of an African Renaissance, indigenous religion has been recovered in South Africa as a national resource. Wild Religion analyzes indigenous rituals of purification on Robben Island, rituals of healing and reconciliation at the new national shrine, Freedom Park, and rituals of animal sacrifice at the World Cup. Not always in the national interest, indigenous religion also appears in the wild religious creativity of prison gangs, the global spirituality of neo-shamans, the ceremonial display of Zulu virgins, the ancient Egyptian theosophy in South Africa's Parliament, and the new traditionalism of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. Arguing that the sacred is produced through the religious work of intensive interpretation, formal ritualization, and intense contestation, Chidester develops innovative insights for understanding the meaning and power of religion in a changing society. For anyone interested in religion, Wild Religion uncovers surprising dynamics of sacred space, violence, fundamentalism, heritage, media, sex, sovereignty, and the political economy of the sacred.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a church of Brazilian origin, has been enormously successful in establishing branches and attracting followers in post-apartheid South Africa. Unlike other Pentecostal Charismatic Churches (PCC), the UCKG insists that relationships with God be devoid of “emotions", that socialisation between members be kept to a minimum and that charity and fellowship are “useless" in materialising God’s blessings. Instead, the UCKG urges members to sacrifice large sums of money to God for delivering wealth, health, social harmony and happiness. While outsiders condemn these rituals as empty or manipulative, this book shows that they are locally meaningful, demand sincerity to work, have limits and are informed by local ideas about human bodies, agency and ontological balance. As an ethnography of people rather than of institutions, this book offers fresh insights into the mass PCC movement that has swept across Africa since the early 1990s.
One of the most striking features of the South African polity, as the 20th anniversary of democratization draws closer, is the intensity of public arguments about race that show no signs of abating any time soon. In the midst of worsening socio-economic inequality, it's the economic question - of the terms of access to wealth, status and economic power, and of how to erase the residues of apartheid's economic dispossession - that dominates these arguments. In recent years, the ANC Youth League - a renewal of the Youth League originally created in 1944 and then banned in 1960 - effectively positioned itself at the forefront of this politicization of race. I argue in this essay that from 1994 to early 2012, the contemporary Youth League retained its predecessor's political persona of precocious provocateur, particularly on matters of race - but differently styled, and deployed to different political ends in the new conjuncture. The repertoire of the Youth League during this period was shaped by a clientelist politics, informed by a version of freedom as a freedom to consume, and the concomitant spectacles of conspicuous consumption that infused the iconography of the 'new' South Africa. These tendencies were most dramatically illustrated during Julius Malema's controversial tenure as Youth League president. Largely disconnected from discursive, deliberative notions of the political, the Youth League's version of politics became an amalgamation of angry street protest, patronage, and lavish partying, which produced a racialized iconography of being well-heeled and down-trodden in a seamless narrative of black solidarity.
This article tracks the life of the song ‘Umshini Wami’ (My Machine Gun) adopted by Jacob Zuma, the President of the African National Congress, since early 2005. It explores the wider implications of political song in the public sphere in South Africa and aims to show how ‘Umshini Wami’ helped Jacob Zuma to prominence and demonstrated a longing in the body politic for a political language other than that of a distancing and alienating technocracy. The article also explores the early pre-Zuma provenance of the song, its links to the pre-1994 struggle period and its entanglement in a seamless masculinity with little place for gendered identities in the new state to come. It argues too that the song can be seen as unstable and unruly, a signifier with a power of its own and not entirely beholden to its new owner.