Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interview with Jeremy Gordin, biographer of Jacob Zuma

Author, journalist and poet Jeremy Gordin speaks to QPQ about his unauthorised biography of ANC President Jacob Zuma. Gordin discusses the man behind the political persona and the challenges of writing a biography on such a contentious figure. He is speaking to David Ansara at the official Jonathan Ball launch at Exclusives Books, Hyde Park. (Wednesday, 10th December 2008).

DA: We’re here with Jeremy Gordin, who is the author of Zuma: A Biography. Jeremy, speak us through the writing of this book. How did it all start?

JG: I actually went to the Hefer Commission where Zuma wasn’t but he ought to have been, which is why the chapter in the book is called ‘Hamlet without the prince’ and that’s when I started getting interested in him.

And then at the end of November, or even 2005 I started covering him after the Hefer Commission of 2002 – 2003. And in 2005, of course, he was fired by President Thabo Mbeki so I was covering him closely. And then there was the famous incident of November 12th when there was a rumour that a young woman – or a relatively young woman anyway, younger than he – had laid charges of rape against him. And we got a leak that she definitely had and I was put in touch with her through some people in the Zuma camp and she absolutely denied it.

So I wrote a story in the Sunday Independent for which I worked and I said that she denied it and named her. And Sunday Times came out with a story saying unequivocally that she had laid charges of being raped, and of course she had. And I was really annoyed – and embarrassed – because obviously I had been used by the Zuma camp. And that’s what got me really hooked and that’s what got me into the story.

DA: Just on that, I think something I find quite disingenuous is that the Zuma camp – especially in the build-up to Polokwane – always used to say that they have been vilified by the media that they are the scapegoats of the nation. But actually they used the media very judiciously and very shrewdly to push their own agenda as well.

JG: Sure, they absolutely did; both sides used the media to push their agenda and certainly the Zuma side did too.

DA: With those calculated leaks…

JG: There were calculated leaks like that. So anyway, I was hooked and then I really wanted to get into the story. […] And I made an effort to get to know these people and to meet Zuma. And I got to know Zuma, and you ask how has my perception of the story changed. It’s quite interesting because it went through kind of, you know, highs and lows because I liked him very much initially but as I got to know more about him I found my own kind of mood fluctuating, and I had to work very hard to make this really not about me and not about my perceptions but to try and tell the story in a narrative.

DA: What were some of those more gloomy moments?

JG: Well, more gloomy moments was when it finally sunk in – I’m a bit slow I’m afraid – when it finally sunk in that I had been used for example in that particular story. It actually came out at the rape trial that… I don’t know if you remember the rape trial that the woman who brought the charges, Kwezi said: “My police minders told me to talk to this guy Jeremy Gordin.” And I realized Zuma – not Zuma himself, I must stress – ‘cos I found out later who it was, somebody actually had a connection in the police force. That opened up the story. South Africa’s actually an amazing place. You have all kinds of people who are purportedly villains for example and yet have got friends from the struggle in high places.

DA: Yes, we were talking a bit about the rape trial. And how do you think Mr. Zuma conducted himself during that and especially his supporters [sic]? Do you think that he did enough to reign in his supporters when they were making very violent statements?

JG: I think that he reigned in his support…well I mean the question was he claimed he wasn’t controlling his supporters but I mean after his supporters behaved incredibly badly it was interesting that suddenly they were reigned in. So, there was someone controlling those supporters but they were reigned in after about two days; they behaved very badly.

DA: Mr. Zuma has a defamation suit that he has been in a protracted battle with; especially with cartoonists. Do you think that that is a wise step to take for a leader?

JG: I think that he has dropped it actually. My understanding is that those suits have all been dropped.

DA: Let’s talk a little bit about…

JG: My minder is calling me.. [interruption]

DA: Just one last point about Mr. Zuma the man. His personality, is it as strong and as effusive as people suggest?

JG: Well, strong and effusive are different as you know, but certainly strong but with a jovial overlay. And not very effusive although when he knows people well, he can be sort of effusive.

DA: Thank you Mr. Gordin, I look forward to reading the book.

JG: Thank you.


Photos by Mark Oppenheimer.

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