JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - With their economy flatlining, currency on the ropes and politics in turmoil, many South Africans are turning to humor for relief, mainly at the expense of President Jacob Zuma and his $16-million home improvements.
Within minutes of Zuma surviving Tuesday’s heated impeachment vote in parliament thanks to unanimous support from African National Congress (ANC) loyalists, the 73-year-old traditionalist Zulu was facing another roasting on the nation’s irreverent stand-up circuit.
“Jacob Zuma is the dude who just threw up all over the dance floor but still doesn’t want to go home,” comedian Lazola Gola quipped, to roars of laughter at an open mike event at Kitchener’s Bar, a 100-year-old watering hole built in the heyday of Johannesburg’s gold rush.
For comedians, Zuma is the gift that keeps on giving, a politician whose career has run the full gamut of scandal, from a love-child and corruption charges to foot-in-mouth insults of African countries and his belief, expressed during a 2006 rape trial, that having a shower can prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS.
However, no episode has surpassed the six-year imbroglio over the “security upgrades” to his sprawling Nkandla private residence that included an amphitheatre, swimming pool, cattle enclosure and chicken run.
Even though South Africa’s top court said last week he had broken the constitution by disobeying a watchdog’s order to pay back some money, Zuma has plowed on, blaming his lawyers for giving bum advice and apologizing for creating “confusion”.
That represented a rare moment of contrition from a leader who has mocked his non-Zulu opponents’ pronunciation of Nkandla - rolling his eyes in parliament and dragging out the main syllable, ‘Nkaaaaaaaandla’ - and has criticized “clever blacks” for getting upset about the issue.
Demonstrating political analysis as sharp as his wit, comedian Mojak Lehoko said Zuma’s ability to ride out the constitutional court smack-down was no surprise.
“This is a man who has survived more than 700 corruption charges and a rape case. There’s no way he’s going to jail over some home improvements and a swimming pool,” he said backstage.
While much of South Africa’s humor inevitably plays on the racial divides that remain two decades after apartheid - particularly between blacks and whites - the ruling ANC party and its leaders, past and present, are also frequent targets.
Nor are there any sacred cows.
In one Lehoko skit mocking the broken manner in which Zuma reads out large numbers in English, he and Mandela are sitting round a fire smoking marijuana, when the anti-apartheid leader accuses Zuma of hogging the joint.
“Come on, Comrade Jacob, you know the rules - two puffs and pass it on,” Mandela says.
“But I’ve only had one...,” Zuma protests. “Thousand, seven hundred and twenty eight.”
Zuma’s reputation for gaffes - in January his office had to correct his assertion Africa was bigger than all the other continents put together - is even starting to make waves internationally.
South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, explained to U.S. audiences this week how Zuma was elected in 2009 without ever being formally cleared by a court of hundreds of corruption charges.
“I know, I know, that should have been a red flag to South Africans but ever since apartheid we’ve strived to be color blind, so all we saw was a flag,” Noah said.
Others have taken the view that the politics of the self-styled ‘Rainbow Nation’ have become so bizarre that satire is unable to compete with the real thing.
“April Fools’ Day 2016 canceled till further notice,” the Daily Maverick, a respected online political magazine, wrote on April 1. “We couldn’t come up with anything half as mad as SA reality today. Sorry.”
Editing by James Macharia and Raissa Kasolowsky