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Imperial snobbishness

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Below is a comment from The Guardian Weekly (12/3/10). It reminded me of Delta Ndou’s blog about Zuma being called a buffoon by the British media.

“How do Zulus explain polygamy?” the BBC website asked in a piece at the end of last week’s coverage of the South African president’s state visit to Britain. There are many more serious concerns about Jacob Zuma’s rule beside his domestic arrangements, and many more important issues for the British and South African governments to discuss. He has said deeply unpleasant things about women and Aids. It is right to criticize him for this. But that does not wholly explain last week’s media fascination with polygamy. There is an undertone of imperial snobbishness about it as well, the mockery of a visiting president exposing a British national weakness for thinking of foreign leaders in the most simplistic, comic-book terms.

African leaders seem particularly prone to this stereotyping. Nelson Mandela can do no wrong in British eyes, just as President Zuma can now do no good – South Africa’s saint giving way to its sinner. Idi Amin, who got his own state visit in the 1970s, was thought a buffoon by the press before he was declared a butcher. Robert Mugabe experienced a similar slide. Britain’s closer neighbours suffer too. President Sarkozy’s state visit in 2008 was dominated by excitement over the tight outfits worn by his wife Carla Bruni. Silvio Berlusconi is routinely laughed at in the press as an ageing Italian lothario, which takes away from the much more serious harm his rule does to his country. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is seen as a tough guy. Most other world leaders, even Germany’s Angela Merkel, lacking any easy definition, are largely ignored.

What Zuma makes of the reporting of his several marriages is unknown. A tough politician, he has doled out as many insults as he has taken. Before leaving for Britain he told a South African paper that “when the British came to our country they said everything we did was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in what-ever way”. That is a reasonable point about an empire whose relics linger on in the imperial coaches and plumed hats dusted off before state visits. The absurdity runs both ways in this affair.

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