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.