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04/11/2013

At Chris Hani's gravesite, President Jacob Zuma takes a swipe

Zuma Gel
A shop in Johannesburg sells Zuma Shower Gel, a gag gift produced after the president said in 2006 that he stood little chance of contracting HIV/AIDS from an HIV-positive woman -- who was not his wife -- because he had showered well after having had sex with her. (Bill Schiller/Toronto Star)

They came to honour the late, great Chris Hani – not to bury him.

That happened 20 years ago this week, after Hani, one of South Africa’s most charismatic anti-apartheid leaders ever, was shot to death outside his home by a Polish immigrant working in league with a white racist politician.

But even at the slain hero’s gravesite on Wednesday, South African President Jacob Zuma – there to lead a commemoration ceremony – couldn’t resist escalating a war of words with his popular Planning Minister Trevor Manuel.

Last week, Manuel, who has never shied from speaking truth to power, told a conference in Pretoria that the time had come to stop blaming apartheid for everything wrong with the country, and start taking responsibility for the delivery of services.

“We – government – should no longer say it’s apartheid’s fault,” the popular minister said. “We should get up every morning and recognize that we have a responsibility.

“There is no longer the (P.W.) Botha regime looking over our shoulder. We are responsible ourselves.”

In the view of many, it was just the kind of butt-kicking honesty the Zuma government needed. And what could be better than having it come from inside the belly of the beast?

We wrote extensively last year about the mounting frustration inside South Africa about the corruption and incompetence of the Zuma government.

Some wonder how a country that has produced four Nobel Peace Prize winners (Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela) could elect the likes of a Zuma to the highest office in the land.

And so on Wednesday President Zuma didn’t disappoint those who have low expectations of him. Rather than wait for another time and another venue to strike back at Manuel, Zuma lashed out, taking some of the sacred shine off the day.

“To suggest that we cannot blame apartheid for what is happening in our country is a mistake,” he said.

“I’m just underlining the point because it became topical in the last few days,” he added as his staff and supporters sniggered nearby.

Nearly 19 years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, poverty, unemployment and inequality continue to dominate black life.

Related: How South Africa's dream turned into a grim reality.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller

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