Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ethics, Zuma and the shield of culture


The controversy regarding President Zuma and his extramarital (and unprotected) sexual capers heated up significantly today. I was greeted this morning with the Cape Times headline: ZUMA DEFENDS LOVE CHILD. The growing media coverage, some speculative, provoked the President to react in the form of a press release. In the press release, the President decries the invasion of his privacy while admitting that he fathered a baby with Ms. Sonomo Khoza. Then he says something very strange:

I said during World AIDS Day that we must all take personal responsibility for our actions. I have done the necessary cultural imperatives in a situation of this nature, for example the formal acknowledgment of paternity and responsibility, including the payment of inhlawulo to the family.

That is certainly a new twist on the concept of personal responsibility. Translated into a new HIV prevention message, it runs something like this: when you have unprotected extramarital sex, and your sexual partner then has your child, do remember to pay compensation to the family. It's the right thing to do! This slogan should be all the rage on the international AIDS conference scene this year. Though perhaps a catchier version would be: clean up your fuck up. In a culturally appropriate way, of course.

Then the press release goes in an even murkier direction:

The media is also in essence questioning the right of the child to exist and fundamentally, her right to life. It is unfortunate that the matter has been handled in this way. I sincerely hope that the media will protect the rights of children.

When I read this, I couldn't get the image out of my mind of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, in the scene where he picks up people and uses them as shields to protect himself from gunfire. In Zuma's case, he picks up a child (and its associated rights) in an attempt to shield himself from criticism: don't shoot the baby! In any case, the media has not focused on the right of the child to exist, if only because that boring issue does not sell papers. How the child came to exist is far more interesting.

The press release includes a statement about the possible impact of this revelation to HIV prevention efforts. The President assures us that intensified efforts in prevention, treatment and research will continue. The idea that his personal behavior could act as a template of rationalization for sexual waywardness in local communities ... that does not come into play. Nor his obvious personal dislike of condoms that he and his government promotes. Now you could argue that President Clinton had his affairs, so why shouldn't Zuma be allowed his Presidential flings? One answer is: that Clinton was not allowed, he was nearly impeached, besides being roasted in the press. But the better answer is: Clinton's actions did not take place during a heterosexually-driven HIV epidemic responsible for hundreds of lives every single day.

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