South Africa's Zuma vs. the Media in London

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Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, right, and the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma with his wife Tobeka Madiba Zuma, left, look at a chess set given to the Queen by Nelson Mandela in 1996

South African President Jacob Zuma received a less than cordial welcome when he stepped off the plane in London for a three-day state visit to Britain this week. The British media, renowned for their sometimes witty, often outlandish headlines and a tone that can swing between cheeky and downright rude, have vilified Zuma for having five wives, calling him everything from a "sex-obsessed bigot" to a "vile buffoon."

The Daily Mail may take the prize for the most outrageous coverage so far. Aside from the two quotes in the previous paragraph, the paper ran a caption beneath a front-page photo of Queen Elizabeth II with Zuma and his newest wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma, reading: "Just Brought One Wife, Mr. Zuma?" The Mail also commented on what it called Zuma's "colorful life," which consists of "five wives, a love child with the daughter of one of his political allies, a criminal trial for alleged rape of an HIV-positive woman and corruption charges." Not stopping there, the paper reported that Zuma had paid "a sort of tribal deposit on a future bride."

Another prominent newspaper, The Independent wrote that "given the range of distinctly ropey state visitors she has greeted during her 58 years on the throne," the "distinctly monogamous" Queen Elizabeth was unlikely to be fazed by the visit. The character bashing continued with the Daily Telegraph, which reported that of "all the colorful characters who have visited the Palace during her [Queen Elizabeth] 58 years on the throne ... the South African president is probably the first to have faced a multitude of criminal charges." Zuma was charged with rape five years ago, but he was acquitted at trial. He also faced charges of fraud, racketeering, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption — but all were dropped before last year's general elections.

Zuma lashed out at his critics this week, telling South Africa's Star newspaper that the British were acting in the superior manner of a colonial master. "When the British came to our country, they said everything we are doing was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way," he said. "Bear in mind that I'm a freedom fighter and I fought to free myself, also for my culture to be respected." The African National Congress Youth League, part of South Africa's governing coalition, went even further, claiming the treatment of Zuma was fueled by racism. "These British racists continue to live in a dreamland and sadly believe that Africans are still their colonial subjects, with no values and principles," the league said in a statement. "They believe that the only acceptable values and principles in the world are British values of whiteness and subjugation of Africans."

However, the South African media, particularly editorial cartoonists, have not spared Zuma from criticism. Indeed, much of what the British media have focused on this week is considered old news at home. "His presidency is also highly controversial in South Africa and is being debated by the public and civil society who are holding him to account," University of Sheffield journalism lecturer Herman Wasserman says. "[It has] created a robust debate about him, which has caused his approval to be at a low point at the moment." Raymond Louw, editor and publisher of the Southern Africa Report, a South Africa-based weekly, believes Zuma's recent behavior in some ways merits the crude treatment by the press. Last month, for instance, Zuma admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock, causing a national outcry. "The way they portrayed Zuma was rather extreme but I can understand why there would be a certain amount of criticism in view of his conduct over the past few months," he says.

However, some media analysts believe there are more sinister motivations behind the media's preoccupation with Zuma. "Just using the word 'buffoon' harks back to an era of portraying Africans as simple and less educated," Wasserman says. Richard Lance Keeble, a professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln in northern England, says the British tabloid obsession with sex and sleaze drives the type of coverage seen with Zuma. "Add to that heady brew a pinch of unacceptable racism and you can easily explain the tabloid treatment of President Zuma's visit to London this week."