To a political alien from another system, President Jacob Zuma must look like a boxer on the ropes. Pow! Pow! Pow! The scandals just keep on coming. Nkandla! Zuma Spy Tapes! Corruption charges! And they're all, quite literally, at that large "fire pool" on his doorstep. To someone from what we South Africans sometimes like to a call a "normal" country, it would seem that Zuma stands no chance; he's going to be impeached. As South Africans, we all know differently. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It seems almost impossible to us that anything will happen to Zuma at all, despite what now seems to be serious findings that he benefited from, and directed, the upgrade/building of a village at his Nkandla home. But this could turn out to be low point of a political system in which those at the top are able to act with impunity. Because in the wind, a correction seems to be coming.
In the middle-class media in this country, which is pretty much all of it, the refrain from the pissed-off burgers of the northern suburbs is that in any other country, Zuma would not get away with this. That it is proof we have failed as a democracy and that there is no accountability.
Of course, it’s far more nuanced than that. Firstly, there is simply no widely accepted definition of what a “normal country” is. It’s nonsense to claim our leaders are less accountable than China’s. No one really knows what they get up to there, until there’s a show trial around a murder, or someone’s son bangs up a Lamborghini in a public street. On the opposite side of the spectrum, in the Netherlands, a whole cabinet once resigned because of something that happened in another country. In India, a country very much like our own, there is accountability in some places, and not in others.
So, when people claim that we are different to a “normal country”, what they really mean is that leaders like Zuma are not behaving in the way they want him to behave. It’s a subjective view, based on their “normal”.
It’s also way too much to claim that our democracy has failed because of the way Zuma is acting. To be sure, it’s a failure of democracy that he is not being held accountable, but that doesn’t mean democracy has failed.
The real error here, if there was one, was that at Polokwane the ANC elected someone who was flawed, perhaps fundamentally. Cosatu itself, when it still mattered, has made comments that sound very similar to that suggestion. There were very real reasons as to why that happened. Where the structural problem really lies, is that ANC is not being punished at the ballot box for that. In a democracy you would expect a party to suffer for electing a very flawed person to lead it. Think the Conservative Party under William Hague, or, if you have a longer memory, the Labour Party under Michael Foot. Or, closer to home, the New National Party and Marthinus van Schalkwyk.
Here, as we know, because of our history and our racial identity issues, that doesn’t happen.
The reason is that there is no competition in the political identity sphere. If our politics is not about policy, but more about identity, then it stands to reason that this is how people must campaign. In one way, this is what the DA’s recent policy fracas over race and affirmative action was really about, about changing its political identity to get closer to that of the voters it wants to attract.
What the Cope narrative tells us is that if there is competition in that identity sphere, then the ANC can be hurt. Cope went from nothing to winning seven percent, or one million votes, in 2009. That means that when there is competition to the ANC, and particularly Jacob Zuma’s ANC, that fits the identity requirement, the party does become vulnerable.
Step forward Zwelinzima Vavi, Irwin Jim, and the Numsa split.
While this split is happening because of political, historical reasons, the structure of the alliance and the huge gulf in economic policy between Vavi, Jim and the ANC, a key factor has to do with corruption and the “political hyenas” that are at play in the ruling party.
Before Vavi was silenced, and reduced to speaking “in his personal capacity” through his suspension, it was the issue of corruption that made him most emotional.
In other words, the type of corruption that we are seeing at Nkandla, the spending of government money to bling up one government person’s home, and the simple laugh in our faces when we call him on it. The continuation of corruption like this has helped to create a context in which a split of the alliance is imminent. Without corruption, and with a culture of accountability, this split may not be happening at all, and certainly wouldn’t be threatening right now.
It didn’t take long for these two issues to become interlinked. The Sunday Times considered the Nkandla story something worth getting Jim’s view on. That would not have happened six months ago. No one would have cared for the view of one union. There might have been a comment from Cosatu, but a single union’s voice would not have been heard in the biggest-selling paper in the country.
But suddenly Jim’s voice is worth hearing on this issue. This means political reporters have already factored in a split; it’s a sign that his will be a negative view on Zuma, and that it will be an important voice.
When it comes to identity, should Vavi and Jim be the faces of this new political entity, presumably a “workers’ party” of some sort, the ANC will suddenly have to fight at that level. The approach that Julius Malema typified in the 2011 Local Government Elections at the FNB Stadium that “The DA is for whites, the ANC is for you” will simply not work. The argument will have to be better than that, much better.
At the same time, this identity politics is about to get much more complicated. Up until now, it’s been easy to claim it’s as simple as someone’s race. But should this new political beast come into being, presumably it’s going to represent “the working class”. This means that our identity politics will be less about race, and more about class. That’s a much harder battle for anyone. In that world, you have to be less crude, less black and white, and more nuanced. And, if you are going to have to fight for the working-class vote, you can’t get away with a state-sponsored tuck-shop and your own private village, while claiming to represent the poor.
All of this seems to suggest that if and when the time comes for the Vavi/Jim entity to get going, it could have a big impact on our politics, even if it doesn’t have to actually win elections; it’s about pressure. And that pressure will suddenly matter to the ANC, in a way that other parties have not up until now.
But two more quick points. Firstly, it’s clear Jim and Vavi are playing a long game. There is no rush to get something off the ground and contest next year’s elections. By doing that, they avoid the humiliation of looking like idiots when they don’t do very well because of the time pressure. It also means they will have five years to shout from the sidelines, without having to actually produce anything in Parliament. There will nothing that can go wrong, no misspent travel vouchers or sex scandals involving government money. It also means that when they do contest in 2019, they will have had time to do plenty of legwork.
But, perhaps the more interesting point is that just the existence of this organisation could focus minds at the ANC’s 2017 conference. If there is suddenly the prospect of being punished for choosing a flawed leader, then perhaps delegates will consider their next choice very, very carefully. DM
Grootes is the host of the Midday Report, and the senior political reporter at Eyewitness News. He’s also the author of SA Politics Unspun, which has been placed in the politics section of some bookshops, in the biography section of others, and the humour section of at least one. He doesn’t care where it goes, so long as it’s also in the “best-seller” section.
Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen joking with President Jacob Zuma at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday, 17 September 2012. Werner Beukes/SAPA
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