The Zulu factor in ANC power equation

2010-10-02 00:00

THE endless speculation over President Jacob Zuma’s chances at a second term universally ignores a crucial element in the conundrum. That is the growing importance of Zulu ethnicity in South Africa’s power equation.

This is a country defined by race, which is the magnifying glass through which we scrutinise every aspect of daily life. Race matters here and although we might wish that it didn’t, suspicion towards others based on this most identifiable marker of identity is deeply ingrained.

And let’s face it, the group pride that marked Jacob Zuma’s struggle for ascendancy over Thabo Mbeki — choreographed to warrior attire and the slogan “100% Zulu Boy” — has grown. Yet ethnic identity — almost as powerful a force as race in our unhappy history — is eschewed in polite political discourse.

There are good reasons for this. Tribal divisions in the black nation were ruthlessly exploited by the white colonialists as a divide-and-conquer tactic. In similar vein, for generations white political rivalry was driven by the fact that most Anglophones despised the Afrikaner tribe, an antipathy that was returned in spades by the Boers.

The declaration of a republic in 1961 was revenge for a tribal conflict that can be traced to the Anglo-Boer War and yet another century of humiliation prior to that.

This continent, in turn, is haunted by the tribal genocide in Rwanda, which confirmed every secret race stereotype of the international community. Though it is now politically correct to avoid using Hutu and Tutsi tribal labels in that conflict, ethnicity clearly played a role in Rwanda and more recently in Kenya.

So the hypersensitivity of the African National Congress to tribalism is laudable and pragmatic. The ANC has adroitly managed the issue internally by ensuring that there is always some kind of ethnic balance to counter the muted but ubiquitous resentments and imagined slights, as reflected in the jokes post-1994 about “Xhosa Nostra” domination.

The problem is that when the chips are down, the easiest way to counter a perceived homogenous enemy — be it white or Xhosa — is through ethnic and regional mobilisation, rather than by garnering allies around shared beliefs. When Zuma’s scripted route to the presidency was stymied by charges of fraud and corruption, the issue in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal was not guilt or innocence. It was how the long-awaited Zulu turn at the presidency was being thwarted by Mbeki, the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa.

Fortunately for the Zulu traditionalists, for Zuma, and probably for the country, that Zulu mobilisation happened to coincide with an ­anyone-but-Mbeki sentiment everywhere else in the country.

In spite of the warrior accoutrements, Zuma is not an unbridled tribalist. As is ANC tradition, he is surrounded by people of all tribal and racial groups — he has probably been more inclusive than Mbeki was. But the explosion of Zulu pride following his election to the presidency is certainly an asset to exploit.

KZN is the most populous province and the Zulu are the biggest ethnic group. ANC membership in KZN has overtaken that of the Eastern Cape and is also the fastest growing in the country.

Following Zuma’s elevation to the presidency, the Inkatha Freedom Party, with its largely rural constituency, has shrivelled further.

For many Zulu-speakers, this is the moment that they have waited for since the destruction of the Zulu kingdom in 1879 — “our turn” at being in charge.

It is likely that Zuma’s most loyal support base will continue to grow apace.

It also happens that the 2012 leadership conference coincides with the ANC’s centenary. Under such circumstances, a second term must be Zuma’s for the taking, unless he somehow commits political suicide.

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