Violent rhetoric

2008-11-27 00:00

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) made a timely and welcome intervention by inviting all political parties to attend a one-day national summit in Durban this week on the topic of political tolerance. This was prompted by stark evidence of what the IEC’s chairwoman, Brigalia Bam, called “the rhetoric of violence and coercion” in some recent party-political discourse.

Volatility has been a feature of elections in this country since the advent of democracy in 1994. There are signs that it could be a strong element in the run-up to the election of 2009. This is primarily because of the divisions within the African National Congress, most vividly shown in the breakaway Congress of the People (Cope). It is a healthy sign that public apologies for intemperate speech have recently been forthcoming from both sides of this conflict. Julius Malema, president of the ANC’s Youth League, has at last acknowledged that his declared willingness to “kill for Zuma” could be construed as incitement to violence. The leadership of Cope has unconditionally withdrawn a remark by its youth leader, Anele Mda, that Jacob Zuma is a rapist and a comment by Willie Madisha that Zuma is South Africa’s Stalin.

Zuma himself needs to accept that his renditions of Umshini Wami may well have precipitated some of the violent language being used at public gatherings. A small flame can easily precipitate a veld fire, and it is time, with the election countdown already under way, that he refrains from singing this inflammatory song.

The leadership of the ANC is uncomfortably poised between the calming, taciturn presence of President Kgalema Motlanthe and the chameleon-like variabilities of Zuma. What is missing is coherence and a cohesive statesmanship. There is constantly a danger that wild and dangerous speech will fill the vacuum. The leadership of Cope, meanwhile, has to move away from being a loud spoiling presence into becoming a proper contender on matters of policy, not personalities.

It is reassuring that the IEC functions as a guardian of the process towards the election next year and will continue to insist on due standards of tolerance and mutual respect.

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