Ipsa scientia potestas est
31 July 2014 23:28 (South Africa)
South Africa

South Africa's Great 2014 Divide

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa
GrootesonSAsgreatdivision-edited.jpg

If the Christmas period was about looking back at 2013, 'tis now the season for making the predictions for 2014. Much of this is going to focus on the elections. We all know they're coming. We don't know when. But anyone who bets against the symbolism of April the 27th either isn't thinking straight, or really does know Gwede Mantashe rather well. However, the real question is what the election will tell us about the various dividing lines that make up our country. More than anything, it's probably fairly safe to say that despite our class, race and ethnic divisions, there is now one line that divides the country in two more clearly than anything else. Are you for President Jacob Zuma? Or against him? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is often claimed that we are a divided country. That we judge each other by how we look and speak. That doesn't make us that much different to the shires of southern England, but we like to obsess about our differences a little bit more. It’s understandable, considering our brutal history is closer to our current time co-ordinates than most other nations.

So, it really talks to the power of the divisions that Zuma has created, that people from all walks of life, from the domestic to the madam, from the taxi driver to the CEO, from the gardener to the home-owner, all seem to agree that Zuma should go. If you had to run a poll asking people what they would want as a political gift for 2014, those who live in urban areas and consume urban-based media (with all its middle-class biases and prejudices) would probably ask not for the ANC's majority to be cut, or for the party to gain votes, but simply for Zuma to go.

To put the question another way, if you had to run two separate polls in the cities asking firstly whether there is any excuse to boo at a funeral service, and secondly whether the people who booed Zuma at the FNB Stadium were wrong, you might get contradictory answers. Which would show that the frustration people have with Zuma overrides many of the usual considerations about propriety, sense of occasion and gigantic respect for Mandela.

But if you had to conduct your polls in the rural areas, and particularly in the Kwa-Zulu/Natal midlands, you would probably get a very different set of results. Certainly, the majority of rural people in South Africa may well say that Zuma should not have been booed. This points to both his popularity in those areas, but also to the greater hold the ANC has in the rural parts of the country. (Though Nkandla itself is IFP-controlled.) It also shows what happens when people only consume media through the SABC, and when they have different class interests more generally. And are more likely to simply view South Africa through a very different prism.

As a matter of more than academic interest, it would be fun to run such a poll, and see if there is a big difference between what rural people in KZN think, and whether those views are different to the responses from the rural Eastern Cape. In the run-up to Mangaung, hundreds of ANC branches in the Eastern Cape failed the audit process, after huge problems during a conference of the OR Tambo Region (the ANC's second biggest) which showed that many of those branches may well have gone against Zuma. If there is anger and frustration at that perceived gerrymandering, it might come across in such a poll. And the Eastern Cape generally is certainly a province to watch during the elections.

But the main reason for the divisions around Zuma is that 2013 was simply the year of Zuma-related scandals. Nkandla dominated the headlines for months. And what started out as something the political commentariat obsessed over, became more and more the dominant political issue, as it seemed to gain huge momentum. It was the thing people were talking about on urban streets everywhere.

The size of the scandals around Zuma are now so big that when the Guptas invaded the country through one of our own air-force bases, many people thought it could be a turning point for Zuma, a moment when the debilitating result of his many friendships is clear for all to see. But the flow of scandals was so thick that, by the end of the year, many people forgot to include it on their lists of big stories for 2013.

Part of the reason for this is that news is something unexpected. Man bites dog. "Zuma Scandal" is no longer unexpected. It is totally expected. So is "Zuma Denies...." and "ANC Backs Zuma Over...." At some point, media organisations will be able to well prepare for the steps that will come in these stories, because they are so predictable.

And that is quite a scary prospect. It would mean the nation has simply given up, and just accepts this kind of fundamental impropriety as a fact of life. Which is exactly how Nigeria was through the 1970s and most of the '80s. A kind of hollowed-out state, where nothing gets done unless untraceable cash changes hands.

Still, in this country and its politics, there already is a strong sense of weariness over Zuma. That no matter what he does, the ANC simply will not act against him, that the Parliament will do nothing and that the by now infamous Security Cluster will serve as Zuma's Protector-in-Chief

There's a structural reason for this. He is, right now, at the height of his political power. He's won not one, but two ANC elections. Crucially, the National Executive Committee is now his to command. Because it is the product of a contested leadership election at Mangaung, it is composed overwhelmingly of people who support him and whose own personal interests are aligned with Zuma remaining in control. (Anyone rememeber Humphrey Mmemezi? The man whose blue light X5 almost killed a student, who was forced to resign his MEC job in Gauteng because of corruption and who is now safely ensconced within the ANC NEC? Does anyone think Mr Mmemezi will ever raise his voice against the man who saved him?)

It would take a momentous turn of events for the NEC to turn against Zuma these days. And it completely nixes the chances of an Mbeki-style recall.

Still, that doesn't mean the fight is over. The ANC is simply too big for one person to dominate completely. If the booing at the FNB Stadium tells us anything, it's that ANC members/supporters in Gauteng are still fighting. And they're clearly determined to continue, and are happy to break the normal rules of engagement to do so. It's hard to blame them. They might well feel that Zuma has used Luthuli House to completely isolate them, and to cook things in such a way as to ensure they cannot take him on.

This may mean it's going to be guerrilla warfare, rather than a battle in the trenches. Using unconventional tactics and weapons. (ANC politics as normal then.)

However, South Africa is about more than Jacob Zuma. This is a place where corrections do happen, where politicians and political parties are, after much time and passion, forced to account, despite how it often looks. It is often said these will be the toughest elections for the ANC since 1994. And the main reason for that, is its choice of leader. A choice it made.

Which means that if 2013 was the year of the Zuma-scandal, 2014 could well see the first consequences of that for the ANC. And how big our divisions really are. DM

Grootes is the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. His book SA Politics Unspun is still in bookshops everywhere (sometimes under the politics section, sometimes in the humour shelf). His New Year's resolution is to obsess less about politics. Just like it was for 2013.

Original photo by Reuters.

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa


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