Here's how South Africa's baby politics can grow up

2017-04-13 10:50

If the memorial tour of Ahmed Kathrada has taught us anything beside the rift in the ruling ANC, let it be that it laid bare the infantile politics that permeate South African society.

To be fair, perhaps many of us believed that after 1994, we would see a determined drive to remedy both the ills of apartheid to relieve the suffering of millions of South Africans.

Despite Madiba magic and some commendable efforts of the Mbeki Part 1 and 2 governments, the second child of Govan Mbeki was not universally liked.

First, he was an exile who had the opportunity to study economics at Sussex University in the UK and who can forget that he was held morally liable for deaths from AIDS after questioning whether, in fact, HIV caused the deadly syndrome.

However, despite Mbeki's failings, he was focused on managing government and it was easy to see his influence in several of his Cabinet members' speeches.


Unlike Mbeki, Jacob Zuma from the start has had questions around his propensity to bend the rules.

Seemingly insignificant, in 2010 Zuma delayed revealing his asset list by eight months and when he finally submitted the list, there were questions around the accuracy of the list, but Zuma in typical fashion depended on his legal team to deflect any serious investigation. That was only the beginning and few South Africans could have guessed that there was more waiting in the wings. In 2009, when details emerged that Zuma had upgraded his Nkandla homestead at a cost of R240m (give or take a few millions), some MPs argued that former presidents also upgraded their homes at taxpayer expense.

True, Mbeki's home upgrade cost R3.5m and Nelson Mandela's Qunu price tag clocked in at R28.2m.

But it has been the disregard of the law that has dogged the Zuma government and brought the boss into conflict with members of his own party.

From Sipho Pityana screaming at Zuma from Save SA to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, it is clear that there are fractures in the top structure, though they put on a brave show of cohesion and unity.

Most public figures in the civilised world would not survive a damming Constitutional Court judgment, but Zuma has shown a consistent manipulation of institutions to stay in power.

Infantile name-calling

South African Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. (Schalk van Zuydam, AP)

You know you're on the wrong side of history when struggle stalwarts like (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Desmond Tutu call for your head.

"Who in their right minds could have approved the expenditure of more than R200m? And to do it in that area, where you have this nice place standing up and just around there the squalor and poverty," Tutu said of the upgrades in 2012. He was also out on the streets to support calls for Jacob Zuma to step down on Friday April 7. But the focus on Zuma is infantile at best, and illustrative that the politics of personality still dominates this young democracy.

South Africans are far more concerned with the messenger than the message.

In China, Deng Xiaoping incurred the wrath of the Communist Party when he advanced a liberalised economy that would allow private ownership and profit.

He is well-known for his quote: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice [it's a good cat]."

Despite being sent to a labour camp in 1969, he returned triumphant in 1974 and is regarded as the author of China's economic miracle.

End-game plan In a modern SA, shouting insults at people with whom you disagree seems to be the definition of politics. In most National Assembly meetings (especially since the introduction to the House of the Economic Freedom Fighters) there have been multiple instances of violent confrontation and shouting matches.

Politicians who "would die for Zuma" now want his head on a plate sounds more like a lovers' fallout than politics.

It's the kind of politics that would embarrass Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party and is useful to generate media headlines that focus more on the drama rather than the substance of the debate.

While it's admirable that so many South Africans took to the streets to protest against the president, perhaps they are failing to ask themselves what would be achieved even if Zuma resigned tomorrow.

Would it fundamentally change the policy of the ANC? No.

Would the ANC relinquish control of state institutions? No.

Would Eskom suddenly cancel its nuclear ambitions; would the looting of state resources end; would Zuma face 700-plus corruption charges? Probably not.

Unsexy work

President Jacob Zuma speaks at the official launch of the Trans-Africa Locomotive prototype near Pretoria. (AP, file)

Columnist Melanie Verwoerd proposes an adroit strategy to change the ANC by joining the organisation, and while many may balk at this idea, the principle that one has to facilitate a change in policy is, perhaps more important than identifying who is keeping the seat warm.

Politics should be management. And for that, it requires managers: People who switch on the electricity, open the taps, pave the roads, lock up criminals, and connect the broadband.

To change policy, you need to focus on building real accountability so that when the Auditor General finds that billions in irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure at the SABC, SAA or Post Office, heads must roll and roll quickly.

When ministers fail in their duty, it hurts the ruling party when they are kept in their positions and are seen to be abusing the judicial system to retain their positions. It's pretty unsexy work and perhaps that's why the personality politics is so attractive. By shouting slogans from a bygone era, and dancing to the beat of music long stopped, some politicians feel that they can join a fight long won. Mbeki wasn't ever as popular as Mandela because of his "get down to business" ethic that dismissed protocols - don't think he ever danced in public - but he was hands on in a true sense of the word.

Zuma is not the problem, as much as it is the way in which the political discourse has focused on who is in charge rather than what is being done.

Illusionists will always explain that the best way to do magic is to focus someone's attention away from where you are doing the trick.

Let's hope South Africans begin looking into the dark to see the wool over their eyes.

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