IF you listen to the sound clip of President Jacob Zuma addressing an audience at Wits this week you will hear hearty, all-round laugher after his comments about “not thinking like Africans” and “roads in Malawi”.
It wasn’t nervous laughter.
Nervous laughter doesn’t sound as boisterous.
This was the laughter of recognition and perhaps agreement (as chauvinist as it might have been).
A bit like the stand-up comic who says what everyone’s thinking but is too afraid to express.
We generally allow stand-up comedians to get away with it.
It creates a special form of social tension that results in collective relief as we are mirrored back to ourselves.
The unspoken has been spoken (Trevor Noah is a master at it).
Whether it is true or not is another matter entirely.
The truth, in the end, is only reached through dispute (someone clever once opined).
Of course I hear you say that Zuma is not a stand-up comedian (a good dancer, yes) and that as the president of the country, he should know better.
Frankly, I am not surprised by many of the statements and gaffes Zuma has made on the occasions when he has spoken off the cuff.
He is, after all, a traditionalist, a patriarch and a polygamist.
He is also, some of you will say, the leader of this country, and as such should be setting an example.
What he says matters, you will argue, and if this insults or prejudices one group or another, it gives, by proxy, permission to those who hold similar distasteful views to express and exercise them in public.
I had an interesting interaction shortly after Zuma’s comments in December 2012 about black women and hair.
“Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair you will never be white,” Zuma told a crowd of apparently delighted young people gathered in KwaZulu-Natal.
Chris Rock more or less said the same thing in his documentary Good Hair.
Black hair is a highly emotive political issue and how you wear it as a black woman supposedly speaks to your political conscience or lack of it.
I had a conversation with a friend afterwards and asked her what she thought of the president’s comments, as it was clear she had recently straightened her hair.
“It was so funny. But he’s not speaking to me. He was talking to those rural children,” she confidently replied with a laugh.
Hers was just one of many responses from women in private and in public on Twitter timelines and on Facebook walls.
There were women who dared to ask who the president thought he was trying to control their bodies, others agreeing with him.
My friend’s response to the hair comment set me thinking.
Why is it so many of us think what Zuma has to say is personal?
Perhaps it has something to do with our oppressive past.
Former National Party leaders and presidents, with their dour suits and grim faces, were, on some level, authoritarian and brutal “father” figures.
Well, at least for the white people who voted for and supported them.
In this traditional world, the leader’s word is law, we obey, and we do as we are told.
Apart from that was the fact that whenever one of the old Nat leaders spoke, yet another law that regulated people’s lives would usually follow.
For black South Africans living under this dictatorship, words uttered by Nat leaders had a direct and devastating impact.
States of emergency, forced removal, mass arrest, death in detention.
What heartens me about the place we live in right now is that whenever the president has said something that someone else has found offensive he has publicly apologised.
In 2006 at Heritage Day celebrations in KwaDukuza, Zuma said: “When I was growing up an ungqingili [a gay] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”
And later he was reported as saying that same-sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God”.
Later the then deputy president apologised “unreservedly for the pain and anger” his statements might have caused.
While there were many who did not accept the apology, the point is he had to make it and he made it publicly, which is more than I can say for a certain family member of mine who holds more or less the same views as the president.
I am convinced that my homophobic family member learned more through Zuma’s apology than any of my attempts to confront her views on the matter.
White people too may have had pause for reflection after the president’s comments about how we treat our dogs.
I didn’t take it personally. He has a point.
I also know just as many black people who love their dogs.
And just to make it clear, I know just as many white people who ill-treat their animals.
But the point is Zuma got us thinking and talking about ourselves.
The key here is that whenever the president says or does something we find hurtful or offensive, we hold him to account.
Sometimes he has called out Mac the Knife to spin it, but if you read between the lines, there is always an attempt at explaining.
We have a leader here from whom we demand an explanation.
And that is a very good thing.
We are all, to some extent, made up of a collection of our prejudices.
We like to hold on to them, to take them out and polish them up occasionally.
And until we become aware of them, are held to account or at least prompted to explore why we hold them, it is unlikely that we will change our minds.
Many people exist and thrive in pockets of “amplified consensus”, that’s why they choose to hang out with each other.
When a politician or leader publicly expresses views some of us might privately hold (remember Helen Zille’s comment about “refugees”) and are later forced to debate these, we are all better off because of it.
Of course, everything Zuma says is heard or viewed through the prism of the many other highly problematic areas concerning his leadership and presidency.
We all say stupid things that we regret later.
Problem is we don’t allow our politicians the same luxury.
But we would be robbing ourselves of many opportunities for rigourous, rude and healthy debate if we should ever begin to censor what the president says.
For me, at least, this is one sign of a healthy democracy. – Daily Maverick