Politics

Gwede Mantashe, between a rock and a very, very hard place

By Branko Brkic 31 March 2010

Talk about the political hot potato that Gwede Mantashe's been handed: the banning  of a struggle song has put the ANC on a possible collision course with the country's judicial system, creating a potential contempt of court crisis. And to make things worse, out of principle, he is forced to defend his arch-enemy, Julius Malema.

The ANC leaders find themselves in an odd spot. It’s one of those things that happens in politics from time to time, a tsunami of circumstances that sideswipes everyone. It gives real meaning to Harold Macmillan’s phrase “Events, dear boy, events”, when asked why governments went off course. Now Gwede Mantashe and Company have the problem of being stuck between party members that are pretty pissed off that a cherished song has been banned, and white paranoia on the other. But this time, the problem is on steroids.

And what makes it worse, is that the organisation that brought this court application on Friday acted in good faith. It’s difficult for the ANC to have a real go at the Society for the Protection of the Constitution. It was them who came to Jacob Zuma’s aid as an amicus curiae during an application that led to the Nicholson Decision. But it’s up to Mantashe and Co. to pick up the pieces, and make a decent play of a bad hand of cards.

He started his press briefing pretty well on Tuesday. Mantashe made a good defence of the ANC’s songs on Tuesday and resisted the urge to sing any of them. He did claim that it was “not up to us in the ANC to enforce this ban”, he called the court decision “unenforceable, unimplementable”. He was not going to face down a group of ANC members with Julius Malema in the vanguard singing it as loudly as they possibly could. The song he did sing has a history of its own. But CJ Langenhoven must have been turning in his grave at the duet of Mantashe and Jackson Mthembu. Mantashe said it was his favourite way of starting an ANC meeting, to ask if they ever believed they would sing that ditty with the enthusiasm they did then.

But wait, there’s more. Mantashe used to sing the song himself, in his younger days, at rugby matches. That’s right, we didn’t make that up. Mantashe played, so did Smuts Ngonyama incidentally (and Vusi Pikoli, and how did that end? – Ed). Someone really needs to write the definitive history of the ANC and rugby. He’s canny, that Mantashe: Using rugby to illustrate how a song is about inspiration, rather than incitement. It is difficult to summon a more soothing image for an Afrikaner than singing in support of your favourite rugby team.

He was asked THE question, you know, about the farmers. Surely in a country where so many white farmers are being killed, a song like this just should not be allowed. He fell down on this one, in our view. Mantashe did point to government’s efforts to stop the carnage, and to Nathi Mthethwa’s comments on the issue. He’s right to, and you can’t really fault government on this. But we do think he could have gone further. Would a soundbite along the lines of “we are worried about white farmers, too many of them are dying, they are important to the country, they are south Africans like we are” really have hurt too much? Anyway, it’s too late now.

Mthembu went further. The ANC “shpokeshpershon” (to quote Mantashe, in a reference to Mthembu’s recent liquor-related exploits) pointed out that “no one can show any correlation between this song and farm murders”. Ja, he’s right. And we fully expect that point to be driven home by the ANC’s lawyers when they finally get their chance.

The ANC says it’s not quite sure which court it’ll approach first. It has several options. Because of the slightly odd circumstances of this case it can go to all of them. Yip, it can go back to the South Gauteng High Court, to Bloemfontein or it could just go for broke and walk five blocks to Braamfontein.

There was also some time for an aside by Mantashe on Malema himself, and relations between the two. Mantashe was making the point that a lot of the anger about this song was driven by “the irritation many people feel at things said by Malema”. It was the opening for this reporter to ask if he was one of the people irritated by Malema. “Is that really a fair question?” interrupted Mthembu. “No, of course not, that’s why I asked it” was the response. Mantashe took it well, as we expected him to. “Politics is not for those with thin skins,” he said, “It’s a hot thing, if you are in the kitchen and you can’t take the heat, you have to get out”. It was one of those slight glimpses of a first-class political brain at work. He has the long view. He’s playing not for now, but for later. He may feel Malema will blow himself out, but he’ll still be standing.

However, the abiding memory of Mantashe’s briefing is one of concern. He’s worried about the social cohesion of South Africa, what used to be called “race relations”. He’s worried about how this kind of hoo-ha has suddenly landed in his lap, about how it is really a manifestation of other deeper problems that we all know lurk beneath the surface. He didn’t ask for this. And neither did the country. But we’re confident he’s going to do what he can to steer through it. As long as he’s not politically weakened in the process, of course.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

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