President, gun-lover — honorary pastor?

South African President Jacob Zuma knows how to work a political rally, as shown by the video atop this post — in which Zuma sings “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (“Bring Me My Machine Gun”). The Weekly Standard sounded a warning about Zuma earlier this month, and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has raised concerns about him for years.

Now Douglas Foster, writing in the June issue of The Atlantic, touches briefly on religious aspects of Zuma’s appeal. Foster, who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is preparing a book on South Africa, returns a few times to an image of a poor woman who sees hope in Zuma:

A young woman toward the front of the crowd, on Zuma’s left, held up a handmade cross, with his image and name at the top and a message painted in uneven letters: BLACK JESUS. Zuma raised his head, clasped his hands together, and bowed in her direction.

Several paragraphs later, Foster invites Zuma to reflect on the meaning of that homemade cross:

I recalled the sign that had proclaimed him the “black Jesus,” thinking he might feel chastened by it. But he wasn’t. “It, to me, expressed the high expectations,” he said. “As you know, Jesus was an ultimate, the son of God brought here to help us. I think that this is what they think is going to be happening.”

Foster’s last paragraph places that cross in a still more sobering context:

The class divide in South Africa is increasingly marked by the line between those who ride and those who walk. In Limpopo, Zuma was whisked away by his bodyguards to his comfortable home in Johannesburg. The woman with the cross, who’d told me she really thought he could revolutionize her world, trudged with her large sign through the dusty field to her shack, in a community where people still empty human waste into buckets and have no electricity or running water. For the moment, she clutched the image of her savior, and hung on to an expression of her quasi-religious faith in him.

Another troubling detail passes with little comment, considering that Zuma is openly polygamous and was accused of raping an HIV-positive, 31-year-old woman:

When Zuma entered the room, he was wearing a bulky green robe, having just come from an evangelical church service where he’d been made an honorary [pastor]. In the wake of the rape trial, he’d made an effort to cultivate conservative evangelicals.

I found this article in the Times of Johannesburg about Rhema Bible Church welcoming a visit from Zuma. Foster is on to something, but it would be helpful to see whether Rhema — part of an international movement that emphasizes the prosperity gospel — is a fluke or a harbinger.

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  • Jerry

    I don’t have a comment on the story or your post, but I have a meta-comment: It’s nice to see this story because it gets away from the current obsessional coverage of “certain events” in the US. Too often we ignore what is going on in the rest of the world. So this coverage is helpful.

  • danr

    What is a [pastor]? When I see those brackets, I can’t help but interpret as “this isn’t exactly what was said, but it’s what was meant – just trust us.”

  • Douglas LeBlanc


    I used [pastor] to replace the incorrect reverend. Popular usage notwithstanding, reverend is a courtesy title rather than a job description.

  • Nancy Reyes

    Zuma is a question…he backs the democracy in Zimbabwe (good) but is hinting that he will follow forced farm seizures similar to the policy of Robert Mugabe (bad).

    Some locals say he is “scary”…as a westerner, I wonder if he is a sociopath…but knowing Africa, one worries if he has used witchcraft rituals to gain power…

    …sometimes a teenager disappears, and sometimes one finds a body missing body parts, and everyone knows that “someone” is starting a business…one sees the benign version of this in Santaria rituals which use animals…even if one doesn’t believe in the rituals, the point is that the locals do believe in them…

    The Pentecostal churches, like the traditional “witch doctors”, build their business on the belief that you have to ask a higher power to get rid of spells that make you sick.

    However in traditional Africa, getting rich is considered evil, since it is assumed you had to do something wrong to get rich…

    So how does the “prosperity gospel” fit in?
    There is a story here…