Zuma’s friends in low places

2008-06-21 00:00

As more becomes known of what happened behind the scenes, it is evident that President Thabo Mbeki lied, distorted and manipulated. He disregarded the Constitution that he had solemnly pledged to uphold in his campaign against those he thought unsuitable successors.

Fortunately Mbeki failed — or unfortunately, if you believe the ends justify the means — but tragically his likely successor shows signs of being a lot worse.

Mbeki was scornful of the opposition. He was quick to ascribe any disagreement with him as racism or, if it came from black Africans, as indicative of a subservient neocolonial mind-set.

But whatever his faults Mbeki did not threaten to assassinate his foes nor did he let loose youth militias to hound his opponents. His government was scrupulous in respecting the courts, despite the many important decisions that went against them.

African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s likely successor, is a very different kettle of fish. Zuma’s performance at Youth Day should give pause to those business leaders and newspaper executives whose sudden enthusiasm regarding his supposed leadership qualities has increased in direct proportion to the likelihood of his succession.

Zuma’s speech started well. He spoke out against ANC Youth League indiscipline, hooliganism and the violence that routinely laces its internal squabbles, including a recent knifing. He magnanimously chided them for being disrespectful of Mbeki.

But Zuma’s speech followed directly on one by ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, during which Malema pledged that the ANCYL would “take up arms and kill” if the corruption case against Zuma was not dropped. Curiously, Zuma did not find such an incitement to violence inappropriate and did not repudiate Malema.

Just for a moment imagine the reaction of any ANC representative had a member of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Freedom Front, or the Inkatha Freedom Party said this. For a political opponent of the ANC to use such words is simply inconceivable.

The ANC’s initial anodyne response was that the ANCYL is an autonomous body “entitled to articulate its own policies and positions”. Eventually, following a public outcry, the ANC cautioned loftily against statements that “might inflame emotions or undermined the principled position of the organisation”.

A mushy-mouthed Zuma now says the ANCYL has assured him that it “will not jeopardise the gains made since 1994”, but there has been no unequivocal repudiation of Malema, one of Zuma’s greatest supporters.

This, then, is apparently the kind of democracy that Zuma is comfortable with. The ANCYL must not be disrespectful of its elders, but it would be quite in order to kill opponents, including officers of the court.

ANCYL members must conduct themselves with personal decorum at all times, but it is okay to raise the spectre of anyone foolish enough to preside over the Zuma trial swaying from a noose on a lamppost outside the High Court.

A culling of Zuma quotes over the past couple of years paints a chilling picture. The ANC has a historical right to govern and will do so until Jesus returns. The media can be critical, but not too much so.

Zuma’s SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions allies, as well as some political commentators, have proclaimed the defeat of Mbeki at the Polokwane conference as a triumph for democracy. It is wistful rubbish.

The rout of Mbeki might temporarily make the ANC more democratic internally. It is likely, however, to have quite the opposite effect on our national democracy.

The ANCYL sentiments presage a South Africa where feral youths put “counter-revolutionaries” to the sword. That is happening right now in Zimbabwe and it hasn’t helped that democracy one bit.

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