South Africa is two weeks into the New Year and already the political stage is ablaze in a war of words, this time between ANC spin doctor Jackson Mthembu and DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. The political vitriol makes for salacious and compelling reading, but does it get us anywhere closer to tracking government service delivery? No, we didn’t think so either – and perhaps that’s the plan. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Fresh from asserting that dog-lovers were un-African, President Jacob Zuma stopped off in Durban for the ANC’s 101st gala banquet, where he declared that businesses that supported the ruling party were bound for a boom.
“We’re not forcing people … you can support and be a supporter, but if you go beyond that and become a member, [and] if you’re a businessman, your business will multiply. Everything you touch will multiply. I’ve always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC … because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business,” Zuma told the business and political elite, who snapped up tickets for the event at prices ranging from R5,000 to R600,000. This was the same event where Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu bid R3.7 million for a picture of Mandela.
The parliamentary leader of the DA, Lindiwe Mazibuko, issued a statement on Monday 14 January 2013 in which she stated that she’d ask Zuma, in Parliament, to clarify whether his remarks were government policy. If the presidential suggestion that businesses that support the ANC would see their fortunes”‘multiply” wasn’t officially acceptable, Mazibuko said she’d ask Zuma to issue a formal retraction.
“These remarks, made during the ANC’s birthday gala dinner, have the potential to severely compromise the principle of good governance, which our constitutional democracy fundamentally depends on,” Mazibuko said in a statement.
The newly reappointed ANC spokesperson was quick off the mark to reject Mazibuko’s call for a presidential apology, predictably with contempt, and reaffirmed that the ruling party was absolutely behind their newly re-elected leader on the issue. “It is a sad fact that Lindiwe Mazibuko is so naive when it comes to African traditions that she cannot relate to them. It is our tradition as Africans that if someone gives you something, in return you thank him/her and wish them prosperity and abundance,” Mthembu said in a statement.
“It is also a fact that the ANC is the only party in South Africa that has economic and business-friendly policies. The implication of this reality is that if business wants to pro(s)per in South Africa, they have to support the ANC as their prosperity is dependent on the ANC being at the helm of South Africa’s government,” the statement said.
In a telephonic interview with Daily Maverick, Mazibuko said what this issue pointed to was an intractable ANC that was at odds with its own principles. “The ANC statements on this issue tell us more about the ruling party than any statement (its secretary general) Gwede Mantashe may, or may not, make about national unity. In circumstances where the auditor general is reporting billions of rands missing from the fiscus each year, it is not ideal to imply that businesses that support the ANC either materially or physically will magically prosper. This obviously has an implication on the deployment of state resources,” Mazibuko said.
“The statement Zuma made is clearly a ‘you wash my hand and I will wash yours’ call to business, and to define this as some kind of African cultural tradition is insulting,” she added, stating that the thinking was akin to the ignorance of people offshore who thought of Africa as one country or culture. “It is racist and backward, and it is indicative of the extent to which the ANC is willing to throw out every vestige of principle in order to defend what it knows is wrong,” she said.
Responding to Mazibuko’s objections, Mthembu told Daily Maverick it was time for the DA parliamentary leader to “get a life”. “That Lindi is jumping on all sorts of things, and reading all sorts of wrong things into what the president says. She definitely needs to get a life and to understand life as it happens. The president has nothing to apologise for. If Lindiwe wants the president to apologise indeed she is not living in this life. The president won’t apologise because he has nothing to make an extraction (retraction) for. The ANC policies have made business people prosperous, and again it is our culture to say ‘may you multiply your fortunes when you have given us anything’.”
Asked whether he thought it was insulting to tell Mazibuko to “get a life”, Mthembu said indeed it wasn’t. “I don’t see that as an insult. She must just wake up and smell the coffee. Did we call Lindiwe a non-African? No, we have not done so,” the ANC spin doctor strongly articulated. “I have never called anyone a name; please, let’s just start there.”
Mthembu carefully explained the intent of the ANC statement to Daily Maverick. “All we have said is please, can she get a life, instead of harking on things that she should understand better. She should have a better understanding of this and she should know that the ANC policies have made business people prosperous,” he said.
But Mazibuko rebutted, saying that the ANC was putting the character and reputation of its own organisation at stake with the manner in which it had dealt with Zuma’s utterances. “Instead of realising that the ANC could be seen to be inviting corruption at the anniversary celebrations, the party chooses to attack people on the basis of race. They say: ‘Let’s call it African culture, let’s call it “akwande lapho nithathe khona” (may the place you got your gift/wealth from, prosper) and say that is acceptable, because we have managed to shoe-horn it into some non-existent cultural norm’. That response is insulting, it is racist, it is ridiculous, and people see through it. And the question still hasn’t been answered because essentially what Jackson Mthembu is saying is that Zuma’s statement is fine. That the ANC thinks it is OK.
“I think whenever desperation strikes, the ANC will resort to whatever preposterous, insulting, personal, sexist, racist, ageist, ad hominem attack they can, in order to try and displace attention from the issue. It is the oldest trick in the book andm as a spin doctor, Jackson Mthembu should know better,” she said, and added that South Africans were now beginning to see through the ANC’s tactics. “It is getting old – people aren’t buying it anymore, and the ANC’s desperation is clear,” she said.
Asked whether the ANC had labelled the DA’s Mazibuko as being “un-African”, Mthembu denied the charge outright. “I am not sure I called her anything. All I said is that what the president has done is in keeping with the African tradition of saying thank you. I never referred to Lindiwe in any way in the statement – all I said was in our African culture when you are given something we respond with: ‘may you please have abundance’. It is our culture and we always say so. I am speaking about an African tradition because I am an African born in Africa, of South African origin. Now, that origin does not have colour.”
But the DA’s parliamentary leader said that the ANC was playing a dangerously divisive game: “The ANC claims to be a party of non-racialism and it claims to be a party of the Constitution, but when push comes to shove and someone in their ranks uses sexist language – like Blade Nzimande did again at the ANC’s celebration – their leaders rally behind him and clap. And the next day the organisation reaffirms that the ANC is non-sexist. It doesn’t help just to say that you are a non-sexist organisation. What you have to do is reject sexism when it rears its ugly head within your own ranks, and outside.”
Mazibuko added: “The ANC does not do this – in fact it embraces verbiage as a way to divide, to keep people disliking each other and to keep people believing that they can’t trust anyone across the colour divide. That is a very convenient numbers game for them – if they can keep black people hating every other race group and all race groups suspicious of each other, they can rally everybody around a racial narrative.”
All racial nationalistic organisations played this type of politick, said Mazibuko, who explained that as long as the ANC could convince black South Africans that their fortunes could only lie with other black South Africans, or with a political party that positioned itself as being only for black South Africans, the ruling party didn’t need to deal with real issues. “They keep everyone hating each other, while at the same time claiming to be a non-racial organisation. They do everything possible to sow discord between race groups, and then sit back and say: ‘Oh, we are not the authors of this – it is just how people feel.’ And then they need not campaign on issues, or engage with accountability, transparency or attend to service delivery within their own ranks,” she stated.
When asked if the ANC had any policy about making statements that could be read to be racist or insensitive in terms of identity, Mthembu started becoming defensive. “We have not traded insults with anybody; let us just start there. We have not insulted any politician. We have not traded insults or called anybody names – we are not in that tradition. We deal with issues – we don’t deal with personality politics. We don’t insult people – we deal with issues that are put on the table. Those who have a playtime of insulting the president at every turn can keep their own business, but we will never stoop that low,” he said, taking a swing at Mazibuko.
But doesn’t politics get very heated and emotional in parliament, and could ANC members occasionally err? “Wait a minute. You will know that politicians take a dip at one another, but they do so in Parliament. They get rough with each other, and if you don’t want someone to be rough with you, well then, don’t get into that space,” said Mthembu. “Politicians will always have a go at one another, but within principled arenas and not to be personal.”
Daily Maverick reminded Mthembu that he hadn’t answered the question – what if a politician accidentally erred or experienced a lapse in judgement? The ANC spokesmen got audibly angry on the other side of the telephonic interview. “What do you want? What is your issue? What are you pushing for?” Mthembu demanded.
I stated the question again. What if the ANC, through error, breached its own codes? “We are not racist. We are a liberation movement. What do you want? By the way, I have other things to do. What is this? We are non-racist, we are non-sexist; we are a progressive liberation movement.”
Trying to get the interview back on track, this journalist affirmed that that the query was not an accusation, merely a valid question. The intent was to discover the ANC’s policy, should a member transgress the party’s codes. “The ANC has its own disciplinary procedures. Now it is for ANC members to understand these procedures in all arenas, in all sectors, in all deployments. If you cross the line, indeed the ANC can implement its own disciplinary measures like any other party. That’s it.” And indeed that was it – the end of the interview.
What this particular war of words illustrates well is the on-going practice of vitriolic politick in South Africa. Like most nations, the local electorate are eagerly voyeuristic – it is more titillating to read about Mazibuko and Mthembu having a go at each other.
Unfortunately, what it doesn’t do, is the actual work that we hired the politicians to do – track laboriously government spending or service delivery patterns, and generally make South Africa work. Now, that is so much harder.
Personality politics make us forget about all that. Vitriolic attacks sell newspapers, increase viewership and drive outraged public outcries. Since the dawn of politics, it was always like that, and it always will be like that. South Africa is no exception. DM
Photo by Greg Nicolson & Osiame Molefe
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle