I don’t want to make a habit of criticizing every foreign report about South Africa that gets something wrong, but an occasional missive in the subject area seems reasonable, no? There are some overused, unuseful tropes that Westerners use in their reports on almost anywhere in Africa. Douglas Foster’s profile of Jacob Zuma in the new issue of The Atlantic trucks in a few of these.

On the whole, the piece does a better job than many of explaining Zuma’s backstory, as well as some of the political machinations of the ANC that led to Zuma’s rise. I do think that in terms of this political intrigue he does readers a disservice by treading lightly on Thabo Mbeki’s role in much of the controversy that has surrounded Zuma. For instance, in Foster’s depiction, Mbeki avoided a constitutional crisis by accepting the ANC’s decision to recall him from the presidency. Mbeki created the potential for a different kind of institutional, if not constitutional crisis, by standing for the party’s presidency to begin with (let alone his clear political meddling in the pursuit of the corruption case against Zuma).

What struck me beyond the political analysis contained within the piece, which generally toes the Western “what does it mean for business? / who is this uncouth singing, dancing, tribal polygamist?” line, is his insistence on physical description as a substitute for hard analysis about this highly compelling political figure. Take for instance this second introductory paragraph:

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions.

Okay, maybe a little physical description is helpful. I don’t have the print edition, but maybe there wasn’t room enough for a good picture to allow readers to size up the man. Maybe the description of his smile tells us something about his character. Otherwise, what do his “large bones,” “bullet-shaped head,” and “full cheeks” tell us except that he’s a big, fat black man? I’m surprised that a later reference to his “reptilian” facial features (and “cold-blooded” determination) didn’t slip into something more “elephantine.” Somehow I doubt that the second paragraph of a major feature on Barack Obama (recall the outcry when Joe Biden so tactfully reminded us was so “clean and articulate” … for a black man) or really any major Western leader would be so consumed with physical description.

Let’s give Foster the benefit of the doubt here. I’ll admit, Zuma does have a unique physical presence. Still, what does that have to do with his charm offensive to American businessmen last year — especially as it’s portrayed in this article?:

South Africa needed “balance,” he said, pushing his belly into the table. The economy would continue to require active intervention because the market still hadn’t corrected for historic patterns of race and class bias.

What?! I think I’ll leave that one stand on its own. “Pushing his belly into the table”? I’m no expert on body language, but the greater implications of that physical description are lost on me besides perhaps juxtaposing the image of, again, a big, fat, black man in a board room with the civilized U.S. bankers. I am left wondering, though, how Zuma got pegged as the fat guy in a room full of Wall Street “fat cats.” Ba-dum-chuh.

I admit, that on its own this criticism may appear frivolous. What is not frivolous is that this kind of crude reliance on physical descriptions is accompanied by an unwillingness to engage with the obvious infrapolitics of the ANC, and their implications during the election. Foster has a reasonable explanation of the Polokwane conference, clearly a watershed moment in post-1994 South African politics. So then why is he left so mystified at the end of the article?

When his dance was done, Zuma shimmied down the gangway, hands up and palms outstretched, lofted along by the cheers. He and his traveling companions quickly slid into a motorcade of luxury SUVs and BMW sedans. Sirens wailing, they zipped off. The woman with the large cross now had it wedged awkwardly beneath her arm. It struck me that her hero hadn’t explained to her why the ANC government had bungled the fight against AIDS or failed to create widespread opportunities for economic mobility.

For many South Africans, the answer is obvious. The Mbeki cohort within the ANC was gone. The grassroots of the party threw out the bums at Polokwane, the view goes. You don’t have to agree with the result to understand that this past election was not irrational. There were clear reasons — of policy, politics, and personality — why Zuma won. For international journalists, especially those with the access that Foster clearly had in writing this article, to omit to explain these to their readers is a disservice. To waste so much time on crude physical description is a failure.

Now that the NPA has dropped the government’s corruption charges against Msholozi aka JZ aka Jacob Zuma, I’m nursing a fascination with the whole “Umshini Wami” phenomenon. The song is from the ANC’s days in exile, and was a song of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). “Umshini Wami” roughly translated means “bring me my machine gun,” and the song is Zuma’s near-official theme song. Crowds have sung it at ANC rallies, after his acquittal on rape charges, and the last couple of days since the NPA gave up his prosecution. I heard it for the first time when I followed a group of ANC volunteers going door to door in the Klipspruit area of Soweto.

Mosuia Lekota, leader of the opposition COPE party, referred to it in his initial announcement of the party’s break from the ANC late last year. Regardless of his chiding of Zuma for continuing to sing the song, its popularity appears to have not abated. I went searching for some videos of the song, and this video from the key Polokwane conference in 2007 seems to tell the tale of how it all went down that fateful December. Thabo Mbeki looks a potent mix of disgusted and crestfallen. Zuma is thrilled with himself. Strangely, Lekota, standing by Mbeki’s side, appears to be enjoying the spectacle as well. Maybe he’s just laughing at it instead of with it.

Without even beginning to judge the man in terms of his worthiness for the office of president, Zuma’s credentials as a performer are strong in this mesmerizing rendition of the anthem. He seems reluctant initially to sing along with the crowd, but soon launches into the song with full energy, waving his arms around his head as though he has been totally overtaken by the tune. As I joked to a friend recently, if I could vote, I may or may not choose to vote for him, but I would definitely be first in line at the record store if he released an album.