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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Zuma’s Bastard: My Encounter with a Desktop Terrorist

Karabo Kgoleng - 2011-01-04

Title: Zuma’s Bastard
Author: Azad Essa
Publisher: Two Dogs
ISBN: 9781920137311
Price: R123.25

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

We initially met online. The man is a blogger, after all, and I tend to spend time skulking around in virtual corners of the internet.

Azad Essa is a South African journalist who exchanged academia in Durban for the newsrooms of Al Jazeera in Doha. He paid his dues by working as researcher and lecturer at the labour studies department at UKZN. His Accidental Academic blog on Mail & Guardian’s Thoughtleader portal won him an award in 2009 and soon enough he received the attention of many through his thought-provoking commentary on issues ranging from Muslim fashion to the banning of the burqa, questioning why Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and, because they are impossible to ignore, Juju, Floyd & Co. He takes on local and international politics and picks at the weeds in his own backyard like a desktop terrorist should.

These rants and musings, written with an interesting combination of humour and some love, culminated in a book titled Zuma’s Bastard. How can you write about prickly subjects like politics, race and religion with love, you might wonder? Well, Che Guevara asked us to let him say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love. One gets that sense with Essa’s work, so it was with great curiosity that I launched into Zuma’s Bastard. But it wasn’t my own journalistic hunting that led me to the Accidental Academic. Azad hunted me down. On Twitter. It’s flattering when an Al Jazeera hack follows and tracks you on today’s most influential social network, and when he starts banging on about being Zuma’s Bastard he’s bound to get everyone’s attention.

But why such a provocative title for his book?

Ferial Haffajee gives her take on this in her foreword of the book, stating that “The title suggests that Azad is of a generation of South Africans who reached political maturity in the era of Polokwane and President Jacob Zuma but who owe no particular loyalty to The Leader of any stripe … a quintessential voice of the Born Frees.”

I always wonder what kind of editorial consideration goes into turning a blog or a collection of opinion essays into a book. Do the separate pieces need to be connected by particular themes? For how long will the commentary remain relevant? Would it be worth it to publish the opinions that are based on events that may date quickly and end up in history’s rubbish bin before we retire? Does the book need an introduction and epilogue? Would a foreword give it a stamp of approval? In Zuma’s Bastard’s case it certainly has.

In the first section, “The Moslems Are Coming [Race and Politics]”, Essa shares his experience in Turkey when a local comments, on discovering that Azad is from South Africa, that the blacks have messed things up (the language is more colourful in the book). His response is thoughtful and considered, while most would be inclined to respond in another, more physical way.

He takes on the banning of the burqa in Belgium and France with a faux-news piece, a clever tactic that he uses in other parts of the book. Essa uses fact and retells it in a humorous way, exposing the absurdity of the subject that he is satirising. He creates a massive street march in which Muslims are celebrating the banning of the burqa in Paris, a ban that is being imposed on the 0,04 percent of the Muslim women in France who wear the covering which, according to one “commentator”, belongs in the Louvre and not on people’s faces. He also questions slavery to fashion, illustrating the complexity of how fashion, the female, multicultural society, religion and politics relate to one another.

Part Two is “The Restless Generation [News & Culture]”, in which Essa lets rip at the cartel that is FIFA and admits to have also been caught up with the World Cup Fever. He also asks whether we would celebrate Feeling It 100 days afterwards.

The section on Politics has Zuma’s Bastard sharing his sharp thoughts on the madness that tends to dominate South African politics thanks to “Blue Julius and Pink Floyd’; then he goes pub-crawling (while completely dry, as he doesn’t drink alcohol) on the evening of President Zuma’s first State of the Nation Address. He was disappointed at the pubs he visited, as the interest was more the amber nectar of the gods (to quote Ndumiso Ngcobo) than the president’s speech. I remember this evening. I was also in a pub, but this one was the kind visited by business people, journalists and artists, so the TV was definitely on during that speech. Unfortunately I don’t think he really missed much as our president fluffed horrendously during that speech.

After casting his analytical eye on international politics, Zuma’s Bastard heads home to South Africa’s India and writes what many people tend to gloss over – the stereotypes of Indian businessmen who treat their employees badly and provide bad service. He claims that these stereotypes are hard to debunk and that “the root of the problem is that so many South African Indian businesses continue to provide pathetic service simply because they can get away with it. It is often poor Indian and black consumers, the quintessential voiceless, who patronize Indian businesses and whose concerns aren’t likely to be taken seriously.” Once again Azad’s concern for the downtrodden shines through what the defensive would call vitriol. I think he’s just saying, “Why do we continue to ignore the elephant that’s thrashing about in our living room?!”

I met Azad Essa briefly at his book launch at Sandton City, Mandela Square Exclusive Books and the next day we met at Love and Revolution, an inspired vegetarian coffeeshop and bookshop on 7th Street in Melville, Johannesburg, where you will find the Che Guevara quote mentioned in this piece written on the wall. Before we began our chat, it transpired that he had attended school with the brother of the co-owner of the shop. Was this a stereotypical case of Indians from Durban all knowing one another, or happy coincidence? We settled down after awkward hellos in a sunny corner and I went straight for the title: Why such a naughty one? Azad says he chose this title because a softer one wouldn’t reflect on the issues that he tackles; also because it’s a title that is indicative of subjects that many fear, that some may feel people shouldn’t talk about, and he faces up to that fear by writing about those issues. The subtitle “An Encounter with a Desktop Terrorist” means he doesn’t escape the Muslim identity question – where does he place himself when he writes about the politics of religion, given that a Muslim identity is such a highly politicised, contested one? He is not one to shout about his faith – a personal issue – from the rooftops, as discussions around faith tend towards the pedantic and dogmatic. Also, in his analysis of issues his reaction may be coming from his being a South African first, or a Muslim first, or being of Indian descent – something that reveals a personal awareness of when, where and how he places himself (or not) in his take on the issues of which he writes.

I placed myself in the interview, questioning our take on issues, as young people trying to make sense of our world. Are we being spoilt brats, for whom the revolution has already been televised, complaining about things we don’t completely understand when we shout about a “cause”, be it local, national, continental or global? Azad looked at me, looked down and spoke about the paper revolution – the political change that has not led to the meaningful change from which writers, bloggers, commentators (save for you-know-who), society and the poor are waiting in vain to reap the rewards. We are faced with bills that could potentially limit our freedom to write and speak to the public, save for the internet; business and political leaders would rather hang out at horse-races, eating sushi off girls’ bodies, than trying to articulate present mass realities at book events; advertisers would rather pay for space where the talk is about conspicuous consumption while starving car guards wait outside their Q7s.

We wrapped up our coffees (ok fine, his coffee and my wine) and I was left bewildered and touched. Azad would go back to Doha where he can’t hit on a Qatari girl and I would head to my car where I’d wish I wore a niqaab (Arabic word for the face cover) so I wouldn’t be hit on by a guy on the street. I chose to wear that covering for two years and never have I felt so free and so restricted at the same time.

Freedom is confusing because it is defined in a way which makes it vulnerable to limiting the freedom of others as well as the freedom of those who are meant to be the custodians of that freedom. What makes you the ultimate custodian of freedom? When you criticise something, does that mean that you are limiting the freedom of that idea? Is it enough to be Zuma’s bastard (or Muhammad’s companion, or Jesus’ love child, or Obama’s father’s son or David’s descendant from Venda)? From my reading and speaking to the desktop terrorist I’d rather be a sum of the parts of all of them than nothing – that is what it means to be a future leader – grounded at home and able to take on the world at the same time; with grace, humility and the kind of love that only a revolutionary is capable of – honesty.

• Read writer Andie Miller's conversation with Karabo Kgoleng, presenter of Afternoon Talk and Literature here.