Mpumelelo Mkhabela

2016's political scapegoats

2016-12-23 07:01

Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Whenever their scandals or shortcomings are exposed dodgy individuals always look for scapegoats. In a significant way, scapegoats have become actors in South African politics.

It is difficult to say which political scapegoating act comes top in 2016. The order of importance doesn’t really matter. The thread is best demonstrated by randomly listing them.

President Jacob Zuma, in trouble for being a chief facilitator of Gupta business ventures with state entities, blamed unnamed countries for wanting to unseat him. He didn’t remember the names.

It was not the first time Zuma’s memory failed him at a crucial moment. He could not remember Vytjie Mentor, the former ANC MP he fondly referred to as “ntombazana” after she allegedly rejected a Gupta offer for a Cabinet job to run state-owned enterprises in exchange for shrinking South African Airways market share on the India route. It was essentially in exchange for acting against the national interest. A suspiciously fading memory was for Zuma a convenient scapegoat.

Mzwanele Manyi, who miraculously discovered the urge to fight colonialism more than two decades into democracy, blamed those who are against economic transformation for Zuma’s troubles. Remgro chairman Johann Rupert is often cited each time pressure mounts on Zuma and his allies.

It appears Rupert is suspected of competing with the Guptas for the capturing of the state even though he has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t do business with the state. He is the target of Gupta allies like Manyi because they strongly believe he influenced the decision to have the appointment of Des van Rooyen, the man who was deployed to “demystify” Treasury, as finance minister reversed.

Manyi has a solid reputation as defender-in-chief of the Guptas and Zuma. Zuma, according to Manyi, is the leader who has done extremely well to empower black people economically. But, as it has become apparent, the major beneficiaries of Zuma’s elite empowerment scheme are the Guptas.

Zuma, the Guptas and Minister Mosebenzi Zwane have blamed South African commercial banks for the closure of bank accounts associated with the Guptas. The fact that the banks were complying with anti-money laundering laws appears irrelevant. Zuma told parliament that the simultaneous act of the banks in complying with the law was “suspicious”.

The president of the Republic doesn’t believe that the private sector should cooperate to prevent serious crimes like money laundering. What would be good for the people of South Africa is bad for the business associates of his son. What a conflict!

Of course, Zuma knows of people who are stealing and he also blames them for the noose that’s tightening around him. The list does not include him, we assume. He won’t say who they are, but one day he will reveal all. For now, we the citizens, can reasonably assume that the stealing is continuing with the president’s knowledge because it’s not convenient for him to expose the thieving scapegoats. This a strange way of scapegoating. Fellow scapegoaters must be envious of Zuma’s innovation.

Eskom chairman Ben Ngubane blamed Public Protector Madonsela for the resignation of the company’s chief executive Brian Molefe. In a prescient remark during the press conference that became famous for the yet-to-be-found Saxonwold Shebeen, Ngubane implied Molefe would resign following the release of the state of capture report that found that under him Eskom bought a coal company for the Guptas.

Scapegoats are not limited to human beings. Cellphone records showed Molefe was on a Gupta telephone line on a consistent basis. In attempting to defend himself, Molefe blamed the capturing of his cellphone records, suggesting they were not an entirely accurate description of his movements to and from the Gupta Saxonwold compound.

Scapegoating can take a new turn when you blame an aspect of yourself except yourself. Take State Security Minister David Mahlabo for example. He blamed his own status as a celebrity and high-profile person for pictures that depict him happy – loose shoe strings, straying arm onto a woman’s thigh and all – in the company of family of a self-proclaimed rhino poacher.

National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams blamed Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza for the botched prosecution of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. “Gone are the days of undermining the NPA,” boasted Abrahams as he flexed him muscles to take Gordhan, a respected minister, to court. But it quickly became clear that the undermining of the NPA was in full swing with Abrahams himself as a protagonist that would strip the institution of whatever shred of respect it might have had.

But Ntlemeza had a different scapegoat in mind for the aborted prosecution of Gordhan: civil society groups that made noise in support of Gordhan influenced Abrahams. These groups, according to Ntlemeza, forced Abrahams to reverse the planned prosecution of Gordhan. The exchange between Abrahams and Ntlemeza was a fascinating case of scapegoating and counter-scapegoating. It can cause armpits to rain sweat this scapegoating business.

That a lack of a scapegoat can cause frustration is best demonstrated by the tension within the ANC after the August 3 municipal elections when the governing party lost control of key metropolitan councils. Who was to blame? The voters who protested against the leadership rot by staying away and voting for the opposition? The Gauteng ANC leadership that distastes Zuma’s leadership?

A scenario of scapegoating probably featured top of the agenda. In the end, the party’s national executive committee took “collective responsibility” for the losses, but did nothing to demonstrate that they took responsibility. It was word-of-mouth responsibility. The problem was no that they didn’t know that Zuma was one of the main causes. The problem was lack of a probable scapegoat.

Added to the August 3 electoral decline was state of capture report, which got Minister Derek Hanekom and some cabinet ministers motivating for the recall of Zuma. Zuma, they argued, was the main cause of the party’s declining electoral fortunes and loss of its moral legitimacy. Some optimists thought this was the moment when our politics was closer to the truth, nailing the real culprit instead of a scapegoat.

In response Zuma’s supporters called on those who have lost confidence in Zuma to step down because they were the real problem. The blame game is not over yet.

The search for nonexistent scapegoats will continue in 2017. No stone will be left unturned.  The stakes will be higher. For some, the choice is ominously straightforward: either go to jail or get elected as leaders of the ANC.  Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: politics without scapegoats would be too honest to be a believable game.

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