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WikiLeaks gives South Africa a turn in the spotlight

WikiLeaks gives South Africa a turn in the spotlight

WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange was arrested on Monday, but the organisation said this would not deter them from publishing the leaked US diplomatic cables. And so, late on Wednesday night, it was South Africa’s turn, with some of the leaked cables dealing with Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema and Thabo Mbeki. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The cables portray the Americans as baffled by the Zuma phenomenon. Jacob Zuma, according to the document, “is a controversial, but not well-understood personage who emerged from obscurity to where he now occupies the apex of South Africa’s political pyramid. He is deeply loved and revered by his closest constituencies; he is mistrusted by opposition parties; and is hated by those here who believe he is ‘wrong for South Africa’.”

One of the cables, dated 8 May 2009, profiles Zuma, in an attempt to dispel caricatures that surrounded the man who was about to become the leader of “the most dynamic emerging democracy in Africa” and proceeds to tell the story of Zuma, unlaced with hyperbole and middle-class disdain. It is a genuine attempt by international diplomats to understand Zuma, a man described as lacking education, but having an abundance of intelligence. The three-part cable concludes, “South Africans have suffered many more and greater tragedies than an elected government with a near two-thirds majority. It is trite to say, but ‘time will tell’. In this case, such a statement rings true for South Africa in 2009.”

Commenting on the luxury vehicles for cabinet ministers fracas in 2009, the cable contrasts the expenditure made on the cars with service delivery, concludes the Zuma government was losing credibility and needed to improve on its service delivery to eradicate “entitlement and inefficiency”. It also questions the wisdom of exorbitant spending by ministers in the face of the global economic downturn, and praises Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s efforts to curb ostentatious spending in her cabinet.

The Julius Malema cable expresses concern about the free rein the ANCYL president seemed to have in 2009, and questions Zuma’s silence over the Mpumalanga service delivery riots, the Free State University racial incident and the Caster Semenya controversy. Sent in November 2009, the cable says of Malema, “It has never been adequately answered whether Malema speaks on his own or with backing from senior leaders of the party. Regardless of whether his views are sanctioned, however, it is becoming clearer that President Jacob Zuma respects Malema and his place within the movement.”

This was long before the incidents that were deemed as “going too far” by the ANC leaders, earning Malema several public rebukes.

Malema’s rise is attributed to morbid public fascination, aggressive political ambition (especially in Limpopo) and by being the voice of the disgruntled youth to the ANC leadership. “We are nonetheless concerned that, as a generation which does not remember the struggle against apartheid comes to adulthood, they may be less content to accept mere rhetoric to express their anger at what they may see as continuing inequality,” the cable concludes.

Unlike Zuma, the diplomats writing the cables were far more confident in their descriptions of former president Thabo Mbeki. He is described as “important, but hypersensitive” and having a fragile ego in a cable written in 2001. His reliance on advisors that lack “experience and diplomatic seasoning” is criticised, as is his loyalty to cabinet ministers such as Steve Tshwete (described as insulting and thoughtless), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and “his health minister”. In response to the wave of criticism the Mbeki government sustained, the cables say his response of accusing the media of being opposition party mouthpieces and racist was “exactly wrong”.

Commenting on Mbeki’s disparities, the cables read “Why mbeki, whose intelligence is widely acknowledged and who is well respected personally, should exhibit a tendency toward shrillness and defensiveness is hotly debated. Some speculate that mbeki and the majority of ANC leaders and office holders are still handicapped by the experience of the struggle against Apartheid. Then, enemies were everywhere and the world fit very neatly into shades of black and white.”

These were only the first few out of more than 1,500 cables. Judging by them, they will make for a very interesting reading season. DM


 

Read more: The Guardian Wikileaks coverage.

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