On June 16, in front of a crowd of young people in Ventersdorp for Youth Day, President Jacob Zuma turned to unusual material: he quoted from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth to make a point about self-making. He might not be formally educated — “not a single teacher in South Africa can claim he ever saw this forehead of mine in his class” — but he had knowledge that went beyond studying for an examination: “I took a decision to educate myself.”
Zuma has made his own the relaxed style, our country’s contribution to the annals of tyranny: “Tell me today, you are educated, I don’t care. I am not worried.”
What is an education and what doesn’t Zuma understand about it? As he presents it, education is an act centred on the self, a piece of self-assertion modelled on political direction: “I took a decision to educate myself.” Zuma confuses personal power with development, and memorising with learning.
At Ventersdorp, he quoted Mark Antony’s speech over Caesar’s murdered body — “I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” — a discourse that starts in irony and ends in incitement to murder.
“Mischief, thou art afoot,” as Antony marvels once he has aroused the mob, “Take thou what course thou wilt!”
Zuma’s lightness (“I don’t care. I am not worried”) is only possible because he is willing to let mischief in the state travel as far as it wishes to go.
The second passage Zuma quoted in Ventersdorp comes from Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5. Zuma reminded his audience of its position in the play: “While he was in trouble, someone comes and tells him that the wife has just died.” It is usually if not universally assumed that Lady Macbeth has killed herself, prompting a display of indifference from the husband who was once so closely bound to her: “She should have died hereafter” (she would have died soon anyway).
The subjects of Zuma’s quotations from Shakespeare come close to matters that must have crossed his mind, from political betrayal and regime change to a wife’s suicide. On December 8 2000, Kate Zuma, the mother of five of Zuma’s children, took a fatal mixture of sleeping pills and chloroquinine, an antimalaria medicine. Her husband was out of town and she telephoned a high-ranking civil servant to announce her deed. She was pronounced dead in a Pretoria hospital. In her suicide note she blamed her “bitter and most painful 24 years of married life”.
For her husband to quote Macbeth on the death of Lady Macbeth does not suggest that he is returning to a difficult subject in his own life but that he has been no more marked than Macbeth by his wife’s suicide. Indifference and lightheartedness are the hallmarks of his governing style.
There may be some unconscious selection behind Zuma’s choices, perhaps a gloating associated with fixed evil. The closer you look at the speech that Zuma cited on June 16 the more it looks like one fool denouncing the others, a sinister fool of fate and his enablers. Macbeth has won the crown but has been tricked by the three witches. No child of his will succeed him on the throne. Nor is his position as secure as it seems, given the unlikelihood of Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane Castle (a point about the play Zuma mentioned at Ventersdorp). Macbeth bears contempt for his victims — “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death” — but also to life itself, “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing”.
In the emptiness and dreariness of this vision, Macbeth is finding the other bank, which he has been moving towards since Act 3, Scene 4: “I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” There is no reason for Macbeth to return to an ordinary life, regulated by conscience, because to do so would be “as tedious” as continuing to the limit of his world of murder and expropriation.
In theatrical tradition Macbeth has an aura of misfortune around it. It is referred to as “the Scottish play” on the superstitious ground that speaking its name out loud in a playhouse will lead to disaster. Yet it is also an optimistic play, or at least a play that predicts a boundary to totalitarianism. Although it follows the narrowing dynamic of violence around the new king, and his increasingly frenzied inner world, the play also shows that more and more people recoil from Macbeth and abandon him until he is a lone figure on the stage.
There may be no honest men around Zuma, but he has found an inexhaustible supply of co-conspirators. Conscience and imagination go deep in Macbeth, one reason his dreams and visions are so compelling. They seem to touch Zuma only as lightly as the death of his wife. The party and the country knew something about the nature of the man it was electing in 2009, but not how far he would go in unravelling the state, and how far he would find people to go along with him.
Four days after Zuma’s Ventersdorp address, former president Thabo Mbeki devoted a speech on the occasion of his 75th birthday to a laboured exposition of eight poems by WB Yeats. Mbeki, who wants Yeats’s fluency and natural voice, managed to turn the poetry back into his usual farrago of misquotation and indirection: “That same impulse of delight must, yet again, drive us back to our tumult in the battle fields of struggle, because those who would be our governors have refused to tread softly even as they tread on our dreams.”
Mbeki’s intellectual style is much closer to the witches’ brew in Macbeth than to the gentle orderly line of Yeats: “Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,/ Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf/ Of the ravined salt-sea shark,/ Root of hemlock digged i’ th’ dark,/ Liver of blaspheming Jew …”
His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, recommended a similarly useless potion to the 900 who died each day from a disease she and her president did not recognise.
What are Zuma and Mbeki up to? Literature and a habit of quotation was an aspect of colonial impressiveness. In the 20th century generations of white South African writers and intellectuals, many dressed themselves in quotations.
For JM Coetzee, to take the most impressive of the examples, Bach and Derrida were ways out of his colonial situation. He suggests that Bach, and other European artists and intellectuals, were “a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end”. The implications of that piece of self-consciousness have never been processed by Coetzee or by his legion of interpreters.
Indeed, for many of his followers, the way out of that social and historical dead end became Coetzee himself. Marlene van Niekerk, for example, not only uses Coetzee in this way, but constructs a solid wall of quotations for herself. In one short interview: Peter Sloterdijk, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Samantha Vice, before Van Niekerk proceeds to “Manfred Max-Neef on economics, [Noam] Chomsky’s work on information and politics, Alexander Chayanov’s ideas on agriculture, André Voisin’s ideas on intensive rotational grazing, Fritz Schumacher’s little book Keep It Small, the writings of Sub-Commandante Marcos of the Zapatistas and that delightful little manifesto titled The Coming Insurrection”.
In another country this would be seen as pseudo-intellectualism — can we imagine Philip Roth alluding to Chayanov’s “ideas on agriculture” or Voisin’s “intensive rotational grazing”? But in South Africa it serves as a badge of radical chic. It has precious little to do with radical or even democratic politics.
In 2016 Van Niekerk, who seems to have a hazy memory of the history of the country and an even hazier view of the record of the university where she works, insisted that only the rich and the educated were fit for a democracy: “We are not a democracy … The majority of the people are too poor and too poorly educated.” The poor “willingly believe [anything] because of the money and goods offered as bribes in exchange for their votes”.
We should look twice when someone dresses their argument in borrowed feathers. Shakespeare or Chayanov, Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, circulate in our country, producing far more heat than light. Macbeth comes to fear equivocation, words and phrases that point in one direction while concealing their true meanings.
For Zuma and Mbeki, as for many other dedicated quoters, the quotation is never a chance for learning, or interpretation, but a piece of colonial camouflage.