Guest Column

President Zuma's race card offends me

2017-04-11 16:13

Mondli Zondo

The news of the recent Cabinet reshuffle by President Zuma and the subsequent downgrading of South Africa by the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has been met with mixed reactions around the country and the globe.

Government has desperately tried to downplay the credit rating whilst civil society and opposition parties have declared that Zuma is no longer fit to hold office and must resign immediately.

Unusually, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke out against the changes to Cabinet although he has since made a u-turn on these remarks after being called to order by Zuma’s faction in the ANC’s National Working Committee.

Cosatu, the ruling party’s alliance partner also surprisingly joined the calls for the president to step down. Even the blindest ANC loyalist would find it hard to deny that the last two weeks have been disastrous for the Zuma administration.

These latest moves by government have also been widely criticised by the general public with many expressing fears that the country is headed downhill under Zuma’s continued leadership. These sentiments resulted in mass protests around the country and abroad with South African expats in New York and London adding their voices to the long list of those who want Zuma to fall.

Notably, last week Friday a march billed as a ‘national shutdown’ was organised by the Democratic Alliance and Save SA. These demonstrations have coaxed a variety of opinions with some feeling it is great to see a diverse group of South Africans standing up against Zuma’s poor leadership, while others dismissed it as nothing but an attempt by disgruntled and racist white South Africans to overthrow a black government.

My views on the matter are simple. I believe that if citizens are concerned or passionate about an issue or a cause and they want to protest in order to communicate their beliefs, they must be allowed to do so freely and without intimidation. Our Constitution recognises the right to protest and we should never allow ourselves to return to the oppressive state we were during apartheid, simply because we disagree with others' reasons for protesting.

It is for this reason that I was shocked and angered when I heard President Zuma remark that last week’s protests were fuelled by racism. I believe many of us recognise that this is nothing but a distraction and Zuma hopes that playing the race card will rally black people around him.

As a black person I am offended by these comments because the president is suggesting that black people do not appreciate the impacts of credit ratings or that black people have no qualms with Cabinet reshuffles that create political instability in the country.

What shocked me more is that the head of state of a democratic country would even say any of this. Whether he likes it or not, Zuma is the president of the whole of South Africa and therefore people of any race have equal rights to praise or criticise him. His constitutional duty is to ensure that we can all do this instead of attacking us when we do.

One of the most intriguing conversations I have had with friends and colleagues is around the effectiveness of marching. Some of my friends have ‘marching fatigue’ and believe that our country doth protest too much. These friends bemoan the violence and destruction of property that often comes with protests in our country. I am equally appalled by these acts however I do not believe they are an inbred part of marching but are often the result of pent-up frustrations.

I do not believe we should ever grow tired of protesting as this is one of the ways through which citizens can vocalise their discontentment. When engaging my friends, I made the point that protesting is not the only tool of expressing our concerns and that we can use various methods concurrently.

In 1955, Rosa Parks sat and refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama. In 1956, South African women marched against oppressive laws. The #FeesMustFall movement relied on social media to capture the world’s attention to the funding crisis in higher education. We don’t have to choose one tool over the other but we can exercise all at the same time.

One of the reasons I support the right to protest is that I believe marching indicates an active citizenry. Imagine we did not take to the streets when we felt there was a service delivery failure by government? We would end up with leaders who act with impunity.

As citizens we need to constantly keep the government of the day on its toes; this is one of the duties we have in a democracy. Another duty we have is to be outraged by injustice whenever it occurs. During last week’s marches, many noted that it would be nice to have civil society - and yes, white citizens - support protests that have nothing or little to do with them.

There is truth in this. Until everyone in this country take on the plight of one another and makes it their own, we will always see divisions when we should display unity. Why do some call students who protest for zero fee increments hooligans? Why do others tell farm workers it’s ridiculous for them to demand a minimum wage? Why did the Marikana massacre not incite a ‘national shutdown’? These are valid questions.

It is also important that we do not make these problems someone else’s but that each of us does introspection and question what is it we are doing to make our country better. We can all be change agents in the spaces we occupy and we should not expect one group or person to be our great saviour. It is easy to sit at home on our cell phones and criticise people who are trying to achieve change via social media without lifting a finger to challenge the status quo ourselves. Many of us are guilty of this.  

Although I am an ardent supporter of protest actions, I believe we can do more to enhance the value of marches. This begins with us, not politicians or civil society. In a democracy, elected leaders often follow the public and not the other way round. This would require of us to unite behind certain common goals and principles. In order to achieve this, we need to de-politicise protests and these need to be led by citizens and not politicians.

We each support different parties and some do not affiliate with any party at all. We need to differentiate between matters of national interest and matters of party interest. For example, a credit downgrade is a national matter that affects us all, irrespective of which party one supports. Black people had these common goals during apartheid and worked to achieve them whether one subscribed to Biko or Tambo. We need to return to that brand of activism and shouldn’t allow democracy to take this away from us.

- Mondli Zondo is a Mandela Washington Fellow; the flagship programme of former President Barack Obama's initiative for young African leaders. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  anti zuma march
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