As Jacob Zuma visits UK, South Africans seek a little respect

South African media brim with scandalous stories about President Jacob Zuma. But it's another matter when UK media follow suit.

Matt Dunham/AP
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, right, bids farewell to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma on the last day of his state visit to the UK at Buckingham Palace in London, Friday.

I’m in a taxi on the way home from Oliver Tambo Airport in glorious warm and sunny Johannesburg, and the talk-radio presenter is gauging public opinion on how people feel about the British press' rather unfriendly reception of South African President Jacob Zuma, who is wrapping up a three-day trip to Britain. Apparently they have called him a “buffoon.”

The callers’ opinions are mixed. Many say they are offended, even if they didn’t vote for Mr. Zuma, to see their president treated with disrespect. Others say, “actually, he is a buffoon.”

Welcome back to sweet home South Africa. Never have the bitter coffee of complaints, self-doubt, and historical baggage and the frothy milk of hope, ambition, and entitlement been so intriguingly combined as here.

Why is it that local newspapers carry scandalous stories, daily, about Mr. Zuma and his coterie, but when British papers do it on his London tour, it’s a matter of shame?

Perhaps the answer lies in history. In 1994, when the ANC was elected to govern for the first time, many white South Africans snapped up British and Australian passports to avoid what they expected would be a wave of violent revenge. When the wave didn’t happen, many returned, only to complain about declining hospitals, schools, roads, and increasing corruption.

Perhaps the answer lies in human nature. Many US citizens living abroad disagreed with the war on terror-era policies of US President George Bush, but also grew tired of the constant drumbeat of conspiracy theories of America’s supposed desire to wipe out the Muslim world.

South Africa has its share of problems, such as the simmering discontent in poor townships, where the government has failed to deliver basic services such as clean drinking water, sewage hook-ups, or electricity.

But South Africa also has its positive news, and its heroes, and not just in the person of the frail but still charismatic Nobel Peace Prize winner, former President Nelson Mandela. Websites like this one, Good News South Africa, bring healthy reminders of an universally applicable point: that problems only get solved when citizens stop complaining and set about solving them.

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