Military intelligence and a savvy Zuma

2008-03-01 00:00

Military intelligence, said Groucho Marx, is a contradiction in terms. Aphorisms like this survive because they pithily encapsulate eternal truths. Military intelligence remains hard to find.

Similarly oxymoronic is, it seems, the old designation of Jacob Zuma. During the days of the liberation struggle he was burdened with the title of Chief of African National Congress Intelligence. Clearly the duties of that office did not include learning the simple military expedient of keeping one’s head below the parapet.

The fall and rise of Zuma has been breathtaking to observe. The fired and once-disgraced former deputy president moved seamlessly and effortlessly to rehabilitation through the machinations of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. After his rapturous election at Polokwane as national chairman of the ANC, he seemed, on the face of it, a shoe-in as next president of the country.

There was, of course, the little outstanding matter of corruption charges. Not to forget the fact that almost half of the ANC membership — not to mention a substantial proportion of the rest of the country — think it inappropriate that a man with his chequered moral history should step into shoes once occupied by Nelson Mandela.

But the first problem could almost certainly be made to disappear by the judicious application of populist pressure at the right places and on the right people. And the latter is of utterly no matter to Zuma camp followers.

All that Zuma had to do was keep that beatific smile on his dial, trade the Mafioso dark shades for something a little less threatening to Western investment bankers and exude a cordial confidence about the inevitable march of history. Indeed, given that President Thabo Mbeki is not exactly a much-loved leader, the occasional nod to probity in governance and national reconciliation would probably swing a lot of non-believers into his camp.

Instead Zuma blunders about, oblivious to the impression he is creating. Every day that passes makes it more apparent that whatever his virtues, he has sufficiently glaring failings which make him unfit to be South Africa’s next president.

The most recent incident is the furore around his confidential briefing to a meeting of the Forum of Black Journalists, from which white hacks were excluded. Those whites who dared attend were physically ejected and the two black journalists who objected to the racial bar and walked out were derided by FBJ members as “coconuts” — black on the outside, white on the inside.

Legal expert Peter Stephan writes in Legalbrief that in terms of the Cape High Court’s famous Scarbrow judgment, any discrimination based on gender, marital status, age and especially race (unless sanctioned under affirmative action provisions) is unfair and unconstitutional. If the Scarbrow judgment is right — it has never been challenged — then “discrimination like exclusive organisations should be avoided, especially if race is the main or only membership criterion or ticket to the game”, writes Stephan.

While there may well be a constitutional protection for black-only professional associations in the fields of finance and law, which are controlled still by whites, the case for the media is less compelling. This is a field dominated by black executives, editors and journalists.

Whatever the situation in law, it remains politically and ethically inappropriate for South Africa’s likely next president to share confidences with a militantly race-based organisation which he does not then share with members of other, racially diverse, rival organisations. A savvy politician might have spoken at the FBJ, but would then have stepped out and engaged on exactly the same terms with journalists committed to a non-racial agenda.

Not only is Zuma not that savvy — and he is also clearly poorly advised — but such blundering behaviour also fits with his ignorance of and indifference to constitutional subtleties. He continues to believe and articulate that ANC interests outweigh the provisions of the Constitution.

Journalists and jurists both have much to fear under a Zuma administration.

• Peter Stephan’s analysis and the Scarbrow judgment can be found at

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